Who would’ve thought such a simple, everyday question could trigger so much anxiety and dread?

Hi, my name is Maria. Pronounced MAH-ree-ya — not mah-REE-ya. Taking it upon myself to correct the pronunciation of my name is my way of reclaiming both my narrative and my identity. And it’s about time my fellow uniquely named individuals did so as well.

When my parents, Fahed and Nour, immigrated to America in the 1980s from Syria, they faced a lot of prejudice. From their “strange accents” to their “weird names,” they continuously felt out of place. Soon enough, in a professional space, Fahed became Fred and Nour became Nora.

Though my parents cherished the beauty and depth of the Arabic language and culture, they never wanted their kids to feel the same isolation and alienation they once felt. Out of love and protection, they gave me and my three siblings “hybrid” names. At home, I was Maria (MAH-ree-ya) but at school or sports practice, I was Maria (mah-REE-ya).

A quick Google search on “changing your name to get a job” will reveal a plethora of articles and studies regarding the effects of “name-whitening.”  The “whiter” your name sounds, the more likely you are to fit a certain image and gain better opportunities such as a higher-paying job.

My parents weren’t crazy to think that a little bit of accommodation would translate to a lifetime of easier and simpler interactions.

While this may seem like such a small inconvenience, what my parents once did to safeguard me from discrimination, inevitably served as the erasure of my Arab identity that I proudly carry. The concoction of my fair skin, my light brown hair and my name all give me a very white-passing identity. While I can’t deny the social advantages this may have given me throughout my life, I never wanted to hide my true self behind this facade.

Throughout middle school and high school, I switched between the “white” version of my name and the “Arab” version. Should I settle for the ease of a quick introduction or play a game of trial-and-error for the sake of a “proper” greeting. For most of my life, if we were close, I was MAH-ree-ya. If we weren’t, I was mah-REE-ya.

The duality of my name contributed to this “double-agent” feeling I grew up with and carried with me into adulthood.

The reality is, our names carry a lot of meaning. The first impression. The first semblance to who we are. Freshman year of college, I switched between Maria and Maria, Maria and Maria. It took until now, the second semester of my sophomore year to start correcting my professors when they take roll in class. To formally introduce myself to everyone I meet the “right” way. To stop minimizing the beauty of my unique name for the sake of easing it for other people.

The assumptions we make on a daily basis solely on the grounds of someone’s name signal the extreme bigotry we face today as a society in modern America. While we pride ourselves on being a melting pot nation of people from any and every background imaginable, the landscape of our society is far from reflecting such an idea. With the rise of an emphasis on diversity and inclusion, it is time to end this trend of white-washing and Americanization for the sake of fitting in.

For now, I will do my part and continue to use the correct pronunciation of my name to highlight the beauty of where I come from.

Maria Ulayyet can be reached at mulayyet@umich.edu.

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