Monday, March 4, 2013

Be Some Other Name

O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

I recently heard Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas on On the Media with Bob Garfield talking about why he feels it is important to rethink and revise the nomenclature used to describe immigrants lacking the proper paperwork to live and work in this country. (Vargas “came out” as an undocumented immigrant in the New York Times Magazine in 2011.) Most media outlets, and indeed most people, use the term “illegal immigrants” or “illegal aliens” but Vargas is advocating for the use of “undocumented immigrant” because he finds it to be a more accurate term. In the interview he said, “My beef, such as it is, with the term “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” is the fact that they’re inaccurate and imprecise. To be in this country without papers is actually a civil offense, not a criminal one.”
Bob Garfield did not seem entirely convinced (you can read the transcript of the full interview or listen to the audio to get your own take on the exchange) and his push back led Vargas to articulate another aspect of his argument, one that resonated with me a great deal. He said, “Actions are illegal, not people. Can you imagine, like, hearing this word “illegal” and knowing that it refers to you, what that does to somebody?”
Bob Garfield questioned whether word choice was really the most important battle to be fighting in the discussion on immigration.
(He also questioned whether “undocumented” would take on negative connotations over time and become a pejorative term just as “illegal” is now. Mr. Garfield is right, the baggage attached to a word may indeed grow and become burdensome over the course of time, but that is a facet of our living, changing, and vital language. We've often seen terms go the other way—from offensive to reclaimed by a group. But that’s a whole other discussion.)

All of us in the children’s literature community engage with these questions daily. And even if we’re not addressing issues of semantics directly, we all believe in the power of words—to transform, to educate, to define, and to limit—right?
Words help us organize our thoughts and understand the world around us. Names carry with them a sense of identity and history. The act of defining oneself, of denying the name others project on your and proclaiming your own identity, is a way of expressing independence, humanity, personhood. And American literature for adults and children has addressed this theme again and again. The examples of Kunta Kinte (who refused the name imposed on him: Toby) in Alex Haley’s Roots and Maria Isabel (who finally stands up to the teacher who has decided it would be easier to call her “Mary”) in Alma Flor Ada’s My Name is Maria Isabel immediately come to mind.

So what do you think of this debate? Is this “just an issue of semantics” (something that is often said so dismissively, although I’m guessing many linguists, literary theorists, and philosophers might take issue with that turn of phrase) and have organizations who wish to drop the I-word gone too far or is this discussion of denying a person’s humanity through the power of language central to not just the immigration debate but to questions of how we address all “outsider” groups?


  1. I taught, my first year, with another English teacher who often thundered the phrase, "Words. Have. Power." to her students. I think about her frequently, and the truth of those words - I don't think this is just a semantic game. Even if it's just a change within ourselves that comes from using a more specific and less divisive word, it's a change worth making.

  2. This is such a great topic. The issue that came immediately to mind for me is that of adopted persons whose adoptive parents sometimes remove the child's first name and replace it with something from the adoptive family's culture. The easiest example of this is when a Korean child is adopted by a white American family, and the adoptive parents decide to delete the child's original name and replace it with something "American." In contrast, *Three Names of Me* is an excellent example of a text where the adopted protagonist's three names are presented - the one her adoptive parents gave her, the name she received at the orphanage, and the unknown name that her birth mother gave her. Although she doesn't know what that name was, the very act of discussing it brings it - and the birth family, which is also often rendered invisible - out of invisibility and into existence. It causes the reader to think, "Oh that's right. She has a birth mother, and the birth mother must have given her a name, even if we don't know what it is."

    Many of my adopted Korean friends and colleagues have legally changed their names to either take back their entire Korean names or include part of it in their legal American name. They do so because, as the author of this blog entry notes, "names carry with them a sense of history and identity... is a way of expressing independence, humanity, personhood." In a situation where much of one's history and identity have been erased through the transaction of adoption, this renaming has become one way that adopted persons can reclaim their personhood. Youth literature has not yet really explored this aspect of an adoptee's coming of age, outside of *Three Names of Me.*

  3. i totally agree with Ms. Davis' thoughts that words do have power. Coming from a biblical standpoint, Proverbs 18:21 (NASB) says "Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit." In looking at this verse, i have had to realize that you have to choose your battles. What's the point of getting frustrated over this matter if it is a purely subjective stance? It's all about how secure one feels within oneself. If you were to refer to me as lazy and incompetent, it would be of significance to me because i am secure in knowing that i am not. The only way an issue would arise would be if i identified myself as such due to unsurfaced insecurities. It should be of no significance to people whether they are called "illegal", "undocumented", or "Ni@#$". What matters is that you have based your identity and strength in something more than a name or social status. In God's eyes we're all the same. When someone refers to my status, i don't see myself as "Black", "African American", "Colored", or otherwise. i see myself as loved. Does anything else matter?

  4. A big part of the problem is the word "alien" too. I was an "alien" in the USA myself, a "resident alien" which sounds like a spinoff of Resident Evil. Most aliens , "legal or otherwise, come to the USA to work, so preferred "visiting worker".

    As far as undocumented, on the one hand, I'm a leftie, so I have to show my solidarity with these groups. On the other, the USA made it quite clear that me and my Masters degree and my technology entrepreneur husband who was bringing millions of dollars of business to the USA were not really welcome, intrusive questions at the airport,secondary screening, no work permit for me (in Canada visitor workers get permits for their spouses to work, and children too I think)and general suspicion. We eventually took our talents back to Canada.

    There's a lot of support for Hispanic undocumented workers in the USA, because of the large population of Hispanic voters. No such support for Canadians I guess!

  5. Namrata--Fascinating quetions here. I don't think "undocumented" could ever take on the negative power of "illegal." This discussion made me think about the terms "illegtimate child" and "illegitimate birth." Well, every child or birth is legitimate, in the deepest sense. In those phrases, doesn't "illegitimate" actually apply to the legal status of adults?