When I was a kid, I didn’t know how to tell people my name in a way that ensured that they would pronounce it right. Well, adults, really. Kids could pronounce it if they wanted to, but kids can be mean; many would call me “Noser.” The most common mispronunciation from adults was “Nowzer,” and one teacher even sounded like she was trying to say “nauseous.” Even if you don’t have a culturally different name, it’s virtually guaranteed that if you went to elementary school, your name was weaponized at some point by your peers. But when you add cultural difference to the equation, what begins as word play inevitably veers into racist and xenophobic territory. It doesn’t even have to be intentional. Teachers who were legitimately frustrated with their inability to pronounce my name correctly expressed their frustration in ways that made me feel like I was doing something to them by having a culturally different name.
My step-dad, who is white, had his own hang-ups about his name due to childhood teasing. It wasn’t foreign, but it was a common girl’s name. As a result, when I was 11 and our family moved from Berkeley to Moraga, he encouraged my brother and me to change our names. I chose Nick, because I still remembered fondly one summer that I had spent with two friends, Neil and Nick, and I liked that we all had names that started with N. My Iranian family back in Berkeley took issue with this decision, and continued to call my brother and me by our given names.
I was too young at the time to appreciate the larger ramifications for my cultural identity. You see, I wasn’t merely going from Nauser to Nick. I was also going from a multicultural family to an all-white family. I used to feel insecure about whether strangers who looked at my brown-skinned biological father would have guessed that I was his son (I remember feeling reassured once when the receptionist at my elementary school smiled upon seeing my dad hug me), and it was becoming a routine occurrence for store employees at check-out stands to remark on the obvious family resemblance that they saw between me and my white step-dad. (He and I thought it was funny, and it didn’t bother me at all.) At school, I had gone from being one of three white boys in my fifth grade class at a school named after Malcolm X to being in the white majority at a middle school named after the grandson of a Spanish colonial expeditionary and soldier where the number of Black students mirrored the number of times someone mispronounced my new name. In name, in family, and in community I had gone from multicultural to “white” in less time than it takes to set up mail forwarding with the post office. In a white supremacist society, it is a privilege to be able to do that. But like all white privileges, it is built on a foundation of self-denial, leading to a kind of spiritual sickness that alienates us from ourselves and from each other.
I didn’t get a driver’s license until I was 23, but at 19 when I was preparing to apply for a California state ID, I realized that if I wanted the name I had been using for almost half of my life to appear on my ID, I would need to legally change my name from Nauser to Nicholas. So I did. I was 19 in 2002. Years later, while reading about the post-9/11 attack on civil liberties by the Bush administration and by local governments around the country, I learned that the NYPD and the FBI had started keeping track of people in the US who changed their names either from or to Muslim- or Arabic-sounding names. I wondered if I was on that list. And if I wasn’t, I wondered if it was because I was white.
My biological father was born and raised in Iran. My mom was born in Kansas and raised in Wisconsin, where I was later born. I once saw some bathroom-wall scribblings at UC Santa Cruz that went like this:
Scribbler 1: Bomb the Middle East!
Scribbler 2: Bomb the Midwest!!
I wrote below those two, “Well, I’m half Middle Eastern and half Midwestern, so how about no bombs?”
In recent years, I’ve started using my birth name again in certain circles. It’s been a long process, and it’s mostly fear that has kept me from returning to my birth name fully and earnestly. Fear of judgment, fear of inconveniencing people, fear of Starbucks employees. But not fear of deportation. Not fear of being banned from the country. Not fear of hate crimes. Not fear of being targeted by my country’s rogue government or the suffering and cornered and angry population that elected it. Because I was born here. And I’m white. But I don’t want fear to be my strongest motivator. I also have hope. I hope that by pairing my white privilege with a culturally unique name and background, I can be an ambassador between two worlds. I hope that children who are different can see me as an example of an adult who is different, and who is happy. I hope that by having the courage to be myself, I can inspire others to do the same, and that when we have more people who feel safe being themselves, we can create a world that stands up for all people who just want to live and be happy.
My struggle with my name, and with my identity more broadly, has made me more sensitive to issues that, in my experience, most straight white cisgender guys don’t think much about. It’s always been a matter of principle for me to pronounce people’s names correctly, and to remember them. When a friend decides to change their name, I’m very supportive, because I know how hard it is to do that. In fact, the first person I met who changed their name (after my brother and me), was my half-Iranian, half-Colombian cousin, who was also coming out as lesbian around the same time. Neither her name change nor her coming out were supported by our Iranian family. When I met my first openly transgender friend, the initial discomfort I felt at the unfamiliarity of transgender identity was quickly replaced by the recognition I felt of his struggle to be called what he wanted to be called, not just in name but also in pronouns.
The hardest part for me about my name journey has been figuring out what it is that I want, over all the “noise” of other people’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings about the matter. Oftentimes they don’t even have to say anything, and perhaps it’s just my own insecurities projecting discomfort onto them. I worry that they’ll think my name change means I’m a different person, or that I’ve betrayed them in some way. Sometimes I’ve received that feedback very clearly. My step-dad, who changed his last name as a way of rejecting his physically abusive biological father, has told me that he sees my reclaiming of my given name as a rejection of him and as an attempt to establish some kind of “credibility” as a person of color. That hurts, and I have not yet found a way to heal that misunderstanding. Ironically, one of my Iranian-American friends says that this interaction with my step-dad is exactly what qualifies me as a person of color under his definition: that I have been harmed by racism. The fact that my process of reclaiming my name coincided with a period of depression, which is another aspect of who I am that my step-dad has never understood, adds to the pain and the difficulty.
What I want is to be able to be myself. For my truth to be what matters most, to myself and others, at least when it concerns me. To be honest, it feels weird to me when people who have known me as “Nick” for years try to call me “Nauser.” What I think I truly want is if a group of my friends are hanging out, and they know me from different eras of my life, that it will be accepted as normal that they refer to me using different names. Because both are a part of me. What I want is to not be defined by a name, or a skin color, but to be a whole person. White supremacy persists because, no matter how it harms people of color, white people believe that at least it gives them the right to be a whole person. But of course that isn’t true. For one thing, you cannot be a whole person if your personhood depends on the dehumanization of someone else. And secondly, you cannot be a whole person if you have to give up your true ancestry to become “white.”
I want personhood for everyone. Because of my white skin, I know that the threats to my own personhood are more spiritual than material. I don’t fear for my life on a daily basis. I don’t worry about having my rights trampled on and then being blamed for it. White supremacy hurts my Black and Brown brothers and sisters and nonbinary siblings in more material ways than it hurts me. My pain is different from theirs, but it serves to remind me of theirs, and to remind me of my responsibility to make things right.
My name is Nauser. In Arabic, it means “the one who helps you to achieve victory.” The name Nicholas, in Greek, means “victory of the people.” These names should not be in conflict.
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Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California (LMFT#123099; licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Jon Reynolds). To work with Nauser, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.
Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.