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First Person

Say my name! It's a key part of my identity

Refusing to call me by my name – no matter how difficult some people may find it to pronounce – is to ignore me, my culture, my colour, my country and my identity writes Saadiyah Daud

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It is quite an interesting phenomenon to feel like a stranger in the city you were born in. Strangely enough, this was not always the case. For many minorities a precise moment is frozen in time in which they realized they were different; a moment in which you realize that there is a "normal" standard for being human and you do not meet these requirements. For me, that moment happened when a teacher skipped over my name because it was "too different."

It was my first year of high school and I was eager about a new start. On the first day of class, my teacher attempted to say my name to which I gladly corrected her pronunciation. Then days passed, weeks and months. She still would not say my name correctly.

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It got to the point where I was no longer called by my name, I was engulfed into a larger group. "Jane's group please come up," my teacher would call out. At first, I did not think twice about this method of addressing students. Then I realized that my table was the only one that was referred to as a collective. Everyone in class was addressed using their name, except me. For the eight months that I was in that class, I never felt like I belonged. And that was when I fully realized that being brown was relevant and meaningful – and not always in a good way.

The teacher's action may seem small. Perhaps, having your name dismissed or overlooked should be expected when you have such a long and unique name. But your name is also the simplest part of your identity. For many of us, it is the one thing that never changes as we grow up. To have this part of your identity broken down to something too complicated or too long is much more than a mistake. It has an impact on how you view yourself. It made me realize that I am different. The isolation that accompanies difference is a constant reminder that there is a norm and I do not fit in. It is the awareness that being brown will never be the same as being white.

For many children, a characteristic of starting a new school year may be new shoes, opening up a new pack of pencil crayons, or seeing all your friends after a long summer. I had these sensations, too, but my Septembers also consisted of explaining how to pronounce my name to teachers who seemed uninterested. And then answering their favourite question: "Do you have a nickname? It would make things easier."

I was not oblivious to colour, but I was oblivious to the meaning behind it. Colour was just colour until someone pointed it out. But after I realized I was "brown," it was all I noticed; I saw it everywhere. From the way I dressed, talked or ate, I was brown. I did things differently and apparently this was not the right way to do things. The right way was the normal way, which – when I grew up in Vancouver – appeared to be the white way.

So, no, my parents didn't give me a nickname and I'm glad they didn't. The story of my name is related to the moment in which I realized I was different.

My name is Saadiyah. Pronounced Saa-dee-yah. My name is Arabic and the name of a woman who played a significant role in the narrative of Islamic prophets, as outlined in the Koran; the Holy book of Islam. My parents intentionally gave me this powerful and strong name in hopes that I would grow to hold these same characteristics, to be selfless, kind and to always help those around me.

I would come home and complain to my parents how teachers and classmates could never get my name right. I would even ask my dad if we could come up with a nickname to make things easier for me. To this, he always responded: "Your name is spelt [the way it sounds] in English, tell your teacher to sound it out."

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As a child, I would roll my eyes to this classic Dad response. Now, looking back, I can't even begin to explain how incredibly grateful I am for my father's practical solution. That small statement shaped who I am today and how I view myself as a person of colour. Living in Canada my entire life, it took time to see there is more to identity than Western norms and values. My name connects me to the forgotten yet admirable aspects of being brown and Muslim. It acts as a constant reminder of where my family is from and how all these factors have moulded my way of thinking and how I view the world.

Now don't get me wrong, this is not a war against nicknames. They can add character and help you figure out which of the nine Matthew's in your grade is your French partner and which one is your Saturday-night date. My hostility toward nicknames is about identity and culture. When a nickname is chosen, it becomes a positive part of your identity and builds your character. A nickname given by your parents in childhood carries value, too. But when it is assigned or demanded to make someone else's life easier, it alienates you.

I am thankful my parents never gave me a nickname. It may have made introducing myself more difficult, but I see this as a learning opportunity. I won't get mad if you ask me how to pronounce my name, or what the origin of it is. I will be hurt if you simply ignore it. Because by doing so you are choosing to ignore me, my culture, my colour, my country and my identity.

Saadiyah Daud lives in Vancouver.

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