Your name choosing guide to avoiding cultural appropriation, racism, and general awfulness (from a white trans* perspective but probably useful for naming children, pets, and fictional characters)

When I was deciding what more ‘neutral’ name I wanted to take on, I wanted a post to help me figure out and explore whether a name was appropriate for me to take on. This is my first attempt at that post.


Before proceeding it’s helpful to have a a few names that are diverse to select from. If you discover knowledge about the name that might point it out as appropriative or at least uncomfortable for you to pick we can find it easier to have another name if we have a few we like. If you haven’t already fallen in love with a specific name it might hurt less to move on from it or to think critically about your choice. 

1. Think about why you want this name!

There are wide range of reasons why we want particular names. Family connections, cool fictional characters, place we love.

However if one is tempted to name oneself after a foreign place or object, take a step back. Do you have a historical connection to the place? Is that historical connection one of colonialism, exoticism or genoicide? Is your desire for the name based its relationship to idealized, simplified  or dramatized understandings of the name’s origin?

Maybe don’t pick that name.

If you are a white person consider how your own white privilege might be making it hard for you to see how your whiteness informs your choice. If you want to name a kid a name that maybe folks of color might chose to avoid (racizalized names get hired less, cause discrimination) then interrogate why you feel you have a right to this name.

If the name is stereotyping or exorcizing a place (naming a kid/yourself/pet sakura because japanese cherry blossoms are beautiful. naming yourself after an anime character. naming yourself India/Africa/any name derived from First Nations traditions, anything related to Yoga) and you are not tied to that place or culture start to process your own need for a name that is tied to experiences not your own.

Naming after places particularly is something to be careful about. What does it say about our relationship to that land?

If this step is proving emotionally challenging (this is ok naming is a big emotional decision that is not typically framed in social responsibility terms) do some journaling seek counsel from close friends who you know will hold you accountable, perhaps now would be a good time to search for other names even if they don’t feel quite right yet.

Take your time. Thinking about why you want a name can be a soul-searching process both in terms of how it might reveal our own entitlement in our choice but also as a trans* person it can be part of coming to understand ourselves and re identify ourselves with a new name. It is ok if it’s quick but it is also ok if it is emotionally draining for you. Give yourself time.

2. Plug your name into multiple baby name engines 

so! now that you have selected your name and have consciously avoided appropriation and exoticism in your choice, or at least had a good hard think plug the name into baby name sites and check out how common the name is and what countries the name pops up. Check out the linguistic origin of your name.

This is much more of a grey area, but it is possible that you will discover the name is actually tied to a specific group of folk that you may not have tied to or is tied to say colonial archetypes. Think hard about this one. You will also encounter much gendering of naming in any name you look up. Parents are often particularly defensive about the names they have chosen for their boy/girl being actually masculine/feminine. All gender neutrality is defined in terms of ratio of it as a boy name to girl name. Be prepared.

A lot of useful information can come out of these sites though and there are frequently debates amongst mothers about whether they can name their kid something which can be helpful.

Also bonus: your name may not even actually be a name in that language, which could be potentially awkward.

3. search your name on Facebook

This step may or may not be helpful but is useful to see say if a word you think you’ve invented is a name or not/is actually used by anyone. Also lets you see who is using that name in the real world.  Also useful to see if your first name is actually a last name or would sound ridiculous with your last name and middle name.

This might necessitate a return to step 1. be patient.

4. do a google with the name + cultural appropriation

Last step see if others have had this process before and you can learn from what others have shared with them. Seeing someone else talk about the process might also help your realize the own work you have to do c:

5. do a google on your name and history

This is just a general interesting trick that might uncover insightful or unpleasant things your name is associated with.


Further Reading

Great blog that is helpful for learning how someone examines and breaks down appropriation. Not specifically a naming resource but a general appropriation resource that might helpful in understanding appropriation and thinking about why one wants a certain name. 

great insight into how parents handle this thought process on a post around a white person wanting to honor Japan by naming her child Sakura.

Specific guidance for writers on racist mistakes in fictional worlds including names

Basic 101 on cultural appropriation and naming for parents

Another appropriation callout blog focusing on appropriation of Japanese culture

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s