The Name Game

Last week, as Elizabeth Warren played the race shifting game of claiming Cherokee heritage, Dear Abby warned against owning ‘otherness’ when naming our babies “foreign” names.

Names matter, because they often come with personal narratives, which shape a sense of who we are and influence who we become.

My own name, derived from the Hindi word saya, which means shelter, was given to me because I was born when my family purchased their first home in India. I am my parents’ first-born and my paternal grandparents’ first grandchild. I can never find my name on a keychain at souvenir stores, but my name is part of my family lore and my immigrant story.

When a name can be seen as un-American, what’s a candidate gifted with immigrant heritage to do on the campaign trail?

I think of Aftab Pureval, the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts now running for Congress in Ohio’s 1st Congressional district, whose name featured in a campaign video in 2016. Playing on the Aflak commercial, he directly addressed his name, which means sun in Persian. Like Aftab, Gayatri Agnew, running for state legislature in Arkansas, played on her name’s uniqueness in a video, breaking it into three recognizable words — Guy-a-tree. Other candidates with “foreign” names include Sri Kulkarni, a candidate for Texas 22nd Congressional district and Xochitl Torres Small, running to represent New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional district.

Rather than shying away from their given names, these candidates are embracing them and leveraging them as part of who they are. For nearly a decade, I have worked with candidates who are first- and second-generation Americans, preparing them to run for office by being authentic and owning their immigrant heritage as an asset. Diminishing our names not only diminishes individuals and their heritage but insults voters’ intelligence and decreases their potential to embrace new and diverse types of leaders.

When I interviewed candidates and elected officials for my book, People Like Us, many shared stories about the role of names. Carmen Mendez, who serves on the city council in Yakima and represents a district that is 90% white, described the decision to emphasize her first name on campaign signs and literature. Some supporters had a hard time with her name, remembering the first, but sending checks addressed to Carmen Garcia and Carmen Lopez, a sign that her name is seen a generic marker of her Latina identity. Athena Salman, a state representative in Arizona, shares her last name with her Palestinian American father and brothers. In the years following September 11, all of them suffered from indiscriminate profiling while traveling by air.

Unlike Athena and Carmen, some candidates have had opportunities to manipulate names on the campaign trail. This year, Beto O’Rourke, the dynamic and inspiring candidate running against the decidedly uncharismatic Ted Cruz, is in an “ethnic” name reversal with his opponent. Beto, a common Latino nickname for Robert, allows the Spanish-speaking candidate who grew up in El Paso to maintain racial ambiguity. On the other hand, Ted (real name, Rafael Edward) has attempted to Anglicize his identity. Nikki Haley, who recently resigned as United States Ambassador to the United Nations, was born Nimrata Randhawa. Using Nikki as her first name and adopting her husband’s last name allowed her to erase markers of her Indian heritage.

Even as the most diverse, the 115th Congress is 81% white, and sadly unrepresentative of America today. In 2016, Raja Krishnamoorthi and Pramila Jayapal contributed to changing that. This year, Rashida Tlaib is headed there. As with the Purevals, Agnews, Mendezes and Salmans, we need to redefine what an American name is, keychains be damned.