Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

What’s your name got to do with it?

March 24th, 2011

Dialogue: Identities
Whiteness (Race), Gender, Culture…

Ten high school students in the circle.
(Another observing from outside).
Their regular teacher.
Three facilitators from UMass.

“I wanna have a cool name like that!”

“I hated the first day of school. For days, they couldn’t figure out how to say my name.”

“I like my name. It’s different.”

“[My full name] and I don’t get along. I use [a nickname]; it’s short and sweet.”

“I want an extra letter!”

“A vowel on the end makes it girlie.”

“I like writing my name.”

“[With my first and middle name], I have the same meaning twice.”

“My name is mispronounced often and people don’t accept correction.”

“My dad liked Slavic names. I like my name.”

“I wasn’t named by my mom or dad… I’m known as [a nickname].”

“It’s weird to think the people in [that city I'm named after] are my relatives.”

“I literally became a different person when I came to the U.S. because people couldn’t say my name.”

“I don’t like how I got my name.”

“People see my name and think something; then they meet me and I don’t look like what they expect.”

It’s about the structure

Talking about our names brought up a lot of feelings. Some experiences have been good, others not so much.  ”Should names follow the stereotypes?” Most in the group said no or shook their head. “Would you throw [that kind of] a curve ball to your kid?” Hmm.  What values are involved in this kind of decision? What does your name have to do with who you are? What does your name have to do with who other people think you are?

The diversity of names in this small group led us to ethnic and racial differences. The facilitators were curious how much these differences lead to cliques in school. For these young people, hanging out with people of similar appearance is something that happened up until about 9th grade, and they think most of that was because of location. Who they went to school with before was who they hung out with, at least until they got to know each other.

It is a deeper question to wonder if the clustering of certain groups in particular areas is simply coincidence.  Where did you go to elementary school? What section? Which house?  Were you in 16 Acres?  There was a hint of class difference…. and some groups seem to get swallowed up by others…. Dominicans, for instance, get lumped in with Puerto Ricans.  Relations within families are complicated too. “I’ve spent more time with white people, so I get along with my relatives who live in the North more than the ones in the South.”  And this quick exchange: “I’m the darkest one in my family.” “You’re not even dark!” “I know!” Some students aren’t sure “what” they are. “I’m confused. I’m a bunch of stuff.”

One young man was fifteen when a friend pointed to a photograph in his home and asked, “Who’s that white lady?” “Uh…” he sortof stammered, “Grandma?” raising his voice as if in doubt. What was obvious is how deeply he is connected to his Grandma, the pigment of her skin being inconsequential to their relationship.

language plays a part

“I start speaking in Spanish when I want to tell a secret.”

One student (a girl) wants to know: “¿Que? ¿Que? Translation?”

Another one (a boy) lets it go.  “I just walk away.”

That could be the gender dynamic. The boys were described as “a pack,” “they just get each other.”  “There’s no drama.” “They just let things go.”

…and then there is the future

“What happens when you go to college?”

This conversation was brief, but the immediate responses seemed to project a future environment similar to the one they’re in now. What these kids value is the intimacy of their 600-student high school, where everybody knows each other and the Principal knows everyone’s name.

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