So, Lainey and Sasha answer this question today on the Sasha Answers podcast. Their answers were thoughtful and heartfelt, of course, but they asked me to weigh in specifically from a name point of view.  It was an honour to try to help.

I need some advice regarding my son. I will give you some background story. I'm Brazilian married to an Iraqi and we have a 13 years old son.

I chose a very Arabic name for my son because I love it. I think is a beautiful name. He's been having problems at school, specially now, with kids calling him names. Calling him a terrorist, tell him to go back to his country (he was born in Canada), asking if he carries a bomb inside his backpack. The school is no help and I confess that I wasn't any help in the beginning. The bullying started when the Boston Bomber was caught. The kids started saying the my son looked  like him and started calling him the Boston Bomber. My son complained to me but I laughed and said you do look exactly like him. Wrong answer. My son was never able to get really over it and I deeply regret that I wasn't able to understand his feelings. He is a genius kid with ADHD who has social issues so friendships are not easy for him.

Now he wants to change his name before going to high school. He says he is not a Muslim, not Arab, proudly Canadian (his words) and that he should be able to make his own decision regarding his name. My husband and I think that he shouldn't give in just because some people are shitheads. He is very proud of his Latino ancestry and we think he should be proud of his Arab ancestry too. As a Latina I understand prejudice. My husband always has problems getting back into the country after going to see his family back home but it is ok because we understand national security.  But it is like the racists are coming out of the woods. The bullying is getting so much worse. People who are not minority are not seeing this. How is this possible? I'm so confused and hurt for him. Should I just give in and change his name? Please help.


First of all, I want to acknowledge your feelings of confusion and hurt… especially of confusion. Parents always want to do what’s best for their children, obviously, but these are increasingly, constantly, unprecedented times and circumstances.  Knowing what to do is more difficult than ever. That’s why I’m most drawn to the line near the end of your letter:

“The bullying is getting so much worse. People who are not minority are not seeing this.”

Unfortunately, this is true. You’re not imagining it. People who aren’t minorities, who don’t have non-Anglo names or non-Caucasian faces, don’t see what you see every single day. They don’t hear how saying someone’s name with just a bit of a ‘tone’ or a smirk can be mocking it, and how wearing that can be over and over, every day, when that name is what comprises so much of your identity. 

So if there’s something ‘external’ I think you should do, it’s to make them see. The school should have a zero-tolerance bullying policy, so you should point out to them that it is true bullying and harassment, and it is ongoing and escalating. Make a list if necessary. Say words to the administration like “violation of his rights” and ‘discriminated against because of his culture’. If they don’t respond swiftly and to your satisfaction, I would call the media and tell them all about prolonged, condoned Islamophobia in Canadian schools (but then, I like a nuclear option).

Forgive me if you’ve done all those things already. I know you are asking about your son and his name, and not looking for tips on how to deal with a school you know better than I do. But I’m not just backseat parenting:

I think there is immense value in showing him that a name – especially a name from a ‘different’ culture –is not something that’s OK to mock. Especially not here, in our supposedly welcoming multicultural nation. I sense a slight tone of apology or regret in your letter, explaining why you chose the name – but you have nothing to apologize for. It’s not like because he has the ‘misfortune’ of this name that he’s somehow asking for this kind of treatment. It’s not like you should have chosen some other name for him, or need to feel any regret in this regard. Wearing an Arabic or a Muslim name is not an excuse to be harassed, and, while I’m up, Arab and Muslim are not synonymous. Also… sometimes this kind of name bias comes from adults, who still titter about ‘weird’ names—so making noise at school has the benefit of letting any small-minded administrators know you don’t stand for this sh*t and they better back you up.

That said… these are difficult times, and being 13 is atrocious no matter what. If your son’s name was Osama, for example, I can understand why he might feel discomfort. If I were sitting down with him, I’d explain that I have received letters from parents whose daughters are called 'Isis' who have had similar struggles. And look—many people grow up and just don’t feel good in their names, and they change them or go by their middle names and that’s fine. 

But I would ask him to consider the following: what if he chooses a Latino name and then people make racist comments about it? What if he chooses a ‘Canadian’ name to go by, and then that name becomes associated with someone who commits a terrible crime? Will he feel he has to choose a third one? I bring it up not to belittle him or his decision, but to point out that if he wants to change his name, he should do it because he sees benefits to a particular new name, not just because he fears other people’s opinions on the old one. Because someone will have opinions about the new one, too. 

Also, everything here indicates that you’re talking about your son’s first name, but I assume his surname will still be Arabic/Iraqi… so I would remind him that it’s not like he’ll be undercover, exactly. Plus, since Arabic names are often interchangeably used for first and last names, he may run into someone whose first name is the same as your son’s last name. Who may be openly Arab, or Muslim. Ask him whether he is he going to feel ‘outed’ if that’s the case?

Does your son have any positive associations with his name? Does he like being called it at home, or did he like it before this? Is there a nickname that distances him slightly from the Arabic part of it, like so many Sams who are really Samirs, or names like Aisha that have associations with popular North American culture as well as Arab culture? The dozens of Sarahs who know their names are as Arabic as they are ‘Biblical’?

For that matter, does he know about Aisha Tyler and Aziz Ansari and Rami Malek and Zayn Malik and Rihanna and Alia Shawkat, all of whom wear Arabic names? Wiz Khalifa? DJ Khaled? This varies wildly from kid to kid, but knowing he’s not the ‘only’ one out there using an Arabic name may help. In fact, I’d say that even if he does Anglicize or change his name, that you want to continue to show him Arab and Muslim people who are celebrated for who they are, specifically in mainstream North American culture, and whose success has happened in conjunction with their ‘openly’ Arabic names. I’m operating from many places of privilege, but I am nonetheless very proud to be one of them.

Ultimately, I agree with your son. His name is his, and he will have to decide to do whatever he wants with it, whether now or in five years or fifteen. He should feel good when he hears his name—that’s the platonic ideal for everyone. But hopefully, talking about some of the ideas above will help him to make the best choice he can, and to remind him that an Arabic name is worthy of being spoken, worn, admired, and impressed into history as any other.