What’s in a name?

What we call ourselves–and others–is important. We begin identifying others early. Infants learn that their caregivers provide them with food and comfort, and learn their names. At around seven months old, many babies start to get nervous around strangers. They can’t identify them. Later, babies learn to self-identify. This usually coincides with them deciding the baby in the mirror is them, not another.

We don’t lose the sense that names carry meaning as we grow up.

When I was a kid, I was a bit out-toed. This means I walked with my toes pointing out. I used to tell my classmates this was because I took ballet, which of course it’s not. It has more to do with the structure and positioning of the leg bones. It didn’t stop one child from nicknaming me “Ducky.” Unfortunately for me, the name stuck from second grade through eighth, even though I stopped walking that way by fifth grade, with the encouragement of my Nana.

I hated the nickname “Ducky.” When I was in the fourth grade, there were only a small handful of students who didn’t call me that, and perhaps only one or two who were still friendly to me.

But this post isn’t about bullying–which is awful. It’s about the power of a name. The power of what we call ourselves and what we call others.

Around the same time–so we’re talking early 1990s here–teachers didn’t say things like “Sit criss-cross, apple sauce.” They told us to sit “Indian Style.” I didn’t know at that age that this was improper. And no–they didn’t mean for us to sit like people from the nation of India. (I’m sure people all over the world sit with their legs crossed when they sit on the floor or ground; it’s comfortable. I’m not attempting to assert that this style of sitting is only for certain groups or chosen by all groups.) Back then, people in my area commonly referred to the people now known as First Nations People as “Indians.”

Considering the term had been introduced in the late fifteenth century, it certainly had staying power. It had other power, too.

By forcing a name on a group of people as diverse as the many tribes and nations that they belonged to, we were continuing to assert our privilege…and as children, we didn’t even know it.

In researching, planning, and writing my book for my MFA, I think a lot about the term “Indians” a lot, particularly as my book takes place in the 1600s. Every time I write the word now I think in my head, “First Nations People” because without doing that, I think I’d feel a little sick.


These last few days, I got to thinking about the people we refer to when we say “alt-right.” Thought of as beyond far-right, these people typically fall into groups like neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other white supremacist groups. We need to stop using this term.

For one thing, it was coined by Richard Spencer. If you don’t know who he is, look him up. Educate yourself.

For another thing, we need to call these groups what they are, because the term “alt-right” or “alternative right” makes words like “Nazis” seem everyday. We need to call them Nazis. We need to call them the KKK. We need to call them white supremacists, anti-semites, racists…we need to identify them by their ideology because it’s so hate-filled.

It’s scary to do that, I’ll admit. Who wants to even think the sentence “Nazis and their white-supremacist buddies carried torches through Charlottesville, chanting ‘Blood and soil’ this weekend.”

I don’t like that sentence one bit, but it’s the truth.

Let’s be more like Hermione when she says, “Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.” Make no mistake that the Nazis, KKK, and other white-supremacist groups and individuals are trying to make us fear them. They weren’t carrying torches because they ran out of D-batteries for their flashlights. Of course, tiki torches don’t exactly strike as frightening an image as actual torches, but it’s clear what they were going for.

So what was Trump trying to do when he mentioned the “alt-left” carrying clubs? First of all, there is no alt-left. It doesn’t exist. Second of all, yes, some had clubs. But what Trump was trying to do here was equate the counter-protestors to the Nazis, KKK, and other white supremacists.

Look, violence is never good. Never. But if someone feels they need a club in order to preserve their own life, who am I to say they don’t when the supremacists bring guns to the city with them?

The difference–the crucial difference–between the white supremacists and those who oppose them is that one group is fighting to protect democracy and promote equal rights, and the other group is fighting to oppress. To use the evilest tactics imaginable and unimaginable.

Trump hoped that by calling them “alt-left,” he could place the counter-protestors in Charlottesville on the same moral level as the white supremacists. He failed, as evidenced by the responses of pretty much everyone around him except for Duke, the former KKK grand wizard.

Call people by what they are. We say First Nations People now instead of “Indians.” We need to say Nazis, KKK, white supremacists, et al instead of “alt-right.”

(Another disclaimer: I am in no way equating First Nations People with white supremacists. That would be ridiculous. I only mention them together because I am relating current events to my own writing process.)

Call people what they are, whether to be respectful or to decrease fear of them.

But don’t get me wrong. We should fear Nazis, KKK, and white supremacists…but we cannot let that fear drive us into submission. To quote Hamilton, “Rise up!” We need to write back to fight back. We need to call people out when they do and say racist things. We need to remember that we let things get to the point where nazis marched through a US city.

We need to remember that ultimately, when off the teleprompter, the president of the United States of America, Donald Trump, sympathized with white supremacists. We need to remember that he said there were two sides to our country.

We need to remember to be on the right side. The side of love. The side that won’t succumb to fear and hatred.

Let’s extinguish their tiki torches and re-ignite Lady Liberty’s.