Cultural Competence: Is your name a barrier … or a bridge?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Cultural Competence

From Dr. Wayne Baker: Please welcome Joe Grimm, a journalism professor at Michigan State University and editor of a new series of guides to cultural competence. Here’s the first book in the MSU series.
And—here’s Joe Grimm …

Middle-school journalism students in Unis Middle School in Dearborn Michigan. Photo by Joe Grimm, used by permission.

Middle-school journalism students at Unis Middle School in Dearborn, Michigan. Photo by Joe Grimm, used by permission.

Names can be barriers.

Until you know a person’s name and how to say it, you might hold them at the verbal equivalent of arm’s length.

It happens with people whose name you can’t remember. It happens if the name is unfamiliar. The barrier can be rooted in culture, language or religion.

When Living Textbook partner Emilia Askari and I began working with middle-school journalism students in Unis Middle School in Dearborn, Mich., we met a room full of people with names with which I had little familiarity. Most of the students there are Arab-American Muslims.

In my family, most people are named after relatives, saints or for qualities expressed in the names. Instead of Steven and Terry and Kyle, this class had Ali, Fatima and Khalil.

As an ice-breaker, I told the students my name and how I got it. I asked to hear the story of their names.

“My name is Khalil, and there are multiple reasons on why I have my name. First, my name means friend of God. Second, my uncle’s name is Khalil.”

“My name is Fatima. I was named that because it is the name of the prophet’s daughter. My name means the one kept away from evil and bad character.”

“My name is Ahmad. That name means praiseworthy. My dad named me that because his brother that died was named Ahmad, too. My name is also one of the many names of the prophet Mohammed.”

One student, named Mohammed, said that there are so many boys at that school with his name that when someone calls it, “half the school turns around.” Having grown up with a lot of people named after Saint Joseph, I understood immediately.

Names can be barriers, but they should be bridges.

sm MSU cultural competence guide cover 100 questions and answers about Indian Americans

Click the cover to learn more about the book.

Care to learn more about this? In “100 Questions About Indian Americans,” first in a series of guides by Read The Spirit and the Michigan State University School of Journalism, one of the issues that comes up is names.

Whose name presents a barrier to you?

Can you get closer to them by learning its story or pronunciation?

What names seem funny or odd to you? Do you know where they come from?


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