Friday, May 14, 2010

Keep it Classist, Paul SCHMIDTBERGER

Last week, The New York Times published an article, written by a man named Paul Schmidtberger, called "Brittney, Brittny, Brittneigh". In case you haven't figured it out yet, the article is all about how appalled Mr. Schmidtberger is at the names parents are giving their children these days. In it, he states:
Misspelling a child’s name won’t make Junior special, creative or unique. Y’s and I’s are not interchangeable, and apostrophes are not some sort of newfangled confetti to be sprinkled liberally throughout groups of letters. Parents shouldn’t impose cryptic, incoherent or foolish spellings on their own children, nor on society as a whole. And they shouldn’t condemn their children to a lifetime of bleakly repeating that, no, the name in question is spelled “Shaiyahne,” not “Cheyenne.” (And while I’m at it, don’t name your child Cheyenne, either.)
My daughter has an Arabic name. People actually have an easier time pronouncing and spelling her name than they do with mine--a name that is solidly Anglo and spelled about as traditionally as it gets. My name is constantly being misspelled and mispronounced.

This article really has nothing to do with caring about the experiences of people with unusual names. If that had been his true concern, he'd favor names that are both short and spelled phonetically. My daughter's name conforms to that standard and it's a name that's been around for thousands of years. It's just not a part of European culture, but evidently that's not good enough for Schmidtberger. Heaven forbid someone give their child a name that's associated with a non-white culture! Provided one conforms to his spelling restrictions, he's willing to deal with a French name like "Brittany", but a Native American name like "Cheyenne" is absolutely beyond the pale.

Shmidtberger's rant is really a thinly-veiled complaint about white people having to deal with the traditions and cultures of others. It's a means of defining who and what is should be accepted as truly civilized. If the reader has any doubts about whether this is about white supremacy, just read his final paragraph.
The liberty to name one’s child is not always absolute, certainly not outside the United States. In France, for example, the district attorney has a short window of time after a child is born to block names contrary to the interest of the child, including those that are pejorative or rude or would cause ridicule. I’m not suggesting we commission a similar corps of name police in the United States. But I am saying that a little humility and some common sense would go a long way.
Schmidtberger actually has the audacity to claim that parents who, for whatever reason, don't want to give their child a name that they will have to share with hundreds of thousands of other Americans should humble themselves before him and adopt his views about what constitutes a proper name. Oh, and I guess it's just coincidence that the names he prefers are those that conform to the naming traditions of a particular (socio-economic) segment of White, Western cultures. Riiight! I mean, common sense dictates that this is the only legitimate naming practice, right? I guess it would be pointless to inform Schmidtberger that even white people didn't give a dern about standardizing names until quite recently.

While reading it, I thought back to a book that I read many years ago called "How the Irish Became White" that chronicles how one group of people sought to escape oppression by turning into the same kind of oppressors that they had faced in their homeland. Paul Schmidtberger seems to be imitating that process by sneering at those who give their children names that are unique or unusual to him. Perhaps, he hopes that no one will notice that multi-syllabic, far-from-straightforward "Schmidtberger" following his first name in the article's by-line. Nope, nothing unusual there, right Schmidtberger?

I remember when I got one of my first real jobs. It was with the United States Navy. The soldier over the department where I was working (a white male in his forties) mispronounced my name the first time he tried to say it. I pronounced it for him the right way, and in an attempt to be accommodating (one of those traits that bourgeoisie black society champions as a necessity for those people of color who wish to be successful in the world), I told him that I was used to people saying it wrong, so as long as he said something close to it, I'd know he was talking to me.

I learned a big lesson that day. When I told him that, he sternly told me that I should never accept people saying my name incorrectly. He said that it's disrespectful to mispronounce someone's name and that I should always insist that people say it and spell it correctly.

That lesson has stayed with me. Over the years, I've found that those who want to pronounce names correctly keep at it until they get it right*. Those who insist on calling you something other than your name are letting you know that they don't think your identity is worth respecting. They've decided that they can't be arsed to get it right and that's that.

What Schmidtberger is doing here is blaming other people for the fact that he might have to put forth some effort when addressing them. How dare parents force him to have to think about the person that he's talking to as an individual? How dare parents not take into consideration HIS comfort when giving their children names? How dare we insist on exercising our right to be self-defining?

*There are exceptions that should be noted. I have encountered people who, despite their best efforts, don't pronounce my name the way I say it or spell it. Most of the time, these have been people whose first language does not feature words that use the same sounds that are found in my name. It's nearly impossible to confuse these people with those like Schmidtberger, though. Those in the former group will almost always make a concerted effort to get people's names right, whereas the Schmidtberger-types will only (at best) make a half-hearted effort before expecting others to just accept whatever they decide to call you.

3 comments:

Jezebella said...

It's kind of ironic that a guy with a hard-to-spell foreign name like "Schmidtberger" is whinging about names that aren't American enough for him, isn't it?

Rootietoot said...

Then there's the family who went through school with my husband. The first 4 kids had "normal" names and Five-Fourteen were called, well, Five, Six,Seven, etc up to Fourteen. He was in school with Eleven and Twelve. When they turned eighteen they changed their names to Donna and Charisse.

I admit to being mildy irritated by cutesy spellings of names (such as Brittneigh, makes me think of a horse), but what annoys me more is the way names go through fashion- there are 4 Emmas in my 11 yr old's class of 20. When my older boys were kids, there were 100 Austins Dustins and Justins. Give me a creative name, one that isn't used so much half the kids at the baseball game turn when you yell your kid's name. My favorite of the day is my friend's daughter Michaia (so pretty!).

And the guy that wrote the article? What's up with him, anyway? Did he ever pick up a Bible? Those names are old as dirt, and each one had some sort of meaning raither than being what was fashionable, just read the census in Numbers 26...

Penny L. Richards said...

The rule I learned when teaching: The CORRECT way to spell a person's name is the way they spell it. Period. There may be millions of Elizabeths out there, but if you spell it Elyzabeth, then that's the right way to spell YOUR name, and anyone who suggests otherwise doesn't understand the phrase "personal name." Same with pronunciation.

And yeah, making a genuine effort is a big part of not being a jerk. Sorry nobody warned you about that, Schmidtberger.