Obama: It’s the Name, Stupid

You may think that I support Obama because of his policies and character. Yes, it’s (mostly) true. But these are really trivial reasons compared with the deeper reason.

You see, I know Obama. Okay, well, maybe I don’t know him. Let’s say that I understand him. Or better, I understand something very important about him. It’s a name thing. This may not seem like much, but I can tell you that for those of us who grew up with names that are three or more syllables, and with at least as many vowels as consonants, Obama’s arrival portends a new day. Just his name will change the lives of millions of Americans. Let me explain.

My last name is Aboulafia. (It is pronounced the way that it looks: A boo la fe a.) A little autobiography will be helpful here. I was born in the U.S. As a matter of fact, my ancestors on one side have been in the U.S. for about a hundred years, and close to a hundred and fifty on the other. I know, not the Mayflower crowd, but I can assure you that I don’t speak English with a foreign accent. (Please bear with me. This will prove important.) Here is some further information. I am 6’4″, fair complected, with a short reddish beard. When I went to college in Denmark for a term, I was sometimes taken for a Dane.

During my time in Denmark, I took a trip to Morocco. The kids on the streets in Moroccan cities would often ask tourists for money, and they could do so in many languages. They would always ask me in English. Not having much money myself, I tried playfully to trick them by telling them that I didn’t understand. I was Danish. I even threw in a few Danish words. But the kids wouldn’t buy it. They laughed, giggled, and said, “No, no, American. You American, American.” So somehow these young Moroccan kids were able to spot me as an American, not a Dane or an Englishman, a German or an Italian, etc. (And I ended up with a few less bucks in my pocket.)

Okay, why do I bring this up? My last name is Sephardic, a name that Spanish Jews took a millennium ago when they lived in Spain with the Arabic Moors. It is not a “typical” Western European name. It sounds, well, just plain weird to a lot of people in America. As a matter of fact, the name itself sounds so exotic that in spite of the way that I appear and speak, Americans have often asked me where I was born, that is, in what country other than America. All they had to do was discover my last name. This would happen at check-out counters or in stores, for example, when I produced a credit card. “Aboulafia, Aboulafia? Hmm, so what country were you born in?” I would reply, often rather defensively, “Here, in America. Uh, my mother and father were born here also.” (Why I felt I had to tell a perfect stranger about my parents is part of the weird name inferiority syndrome.) When I was younger, sometimes even teachers would ask where I was from. My name, and just my name, mind you, put my nationality into question. And this would happen in spite of the evidence (me) standing and staring the questioner in the face.

So now along comes Barack Obama. And I am waiting. I figure, okay, this guy is really good, but they are going to say that he isn’t a real American. He won’t have to open his mouth. People will just look at his name. “Obama? Obama? Where was he born? Bet he’s not a real American.” He’s going to be O-U-T before he gets a chance at bat.

And then it happened. He manages to get over enough hurdles, including his name, to win the Democratic nomination. And I am thinking, “Obama, the name–three syllables, with as many vowels as consonants–is going to transform life here in the good old U.S. of A. for multi-syllabled, funny named persons.” You may think that this is a small matter. It isn’t. There are a lot of us. And we are growing in numbers every year. With the rise in immigration, strange names from all over the world have increased in America in the last decades, including ones with only one syllable.

So, three cheers for Obama, a man with a handle who as president would make many of us feel more at home in our own country. And if enough of us funny named folks vote for him, he will get a chance to do so.

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7 comments on “Obama: It’s the Name, Stupid

  1. BalRog says:

    My favorite commentary on this phenomenon is from the movie “Short Circuit”:

    Crosby (Steve Guttenberg): “Where are you from anyway.”
    Ben (Fisher Stevens): “Bakersfield originally.”
    Crosby: “No, I mean your ancestors.”
    Ben: “Oh them. Pittsburgh.”

    Of course, in that case, the comment was motivated by Ben’s thick Indian accent and cultural oddities rather than by his name, but the principle is the same. “When you assume, etc., etc.”

  2. I understand how you feel about your name. If someone could do something to make Feinburg seem attractive, I’d be very happy.

    Are you driven only by self-interest, or by a concern that there should be no one in the nation who feels funny about his name?

    If it’s the latter your after, you must understand that there will always be some things deemed culturally attractive and others deemed otherwise. This is the nature of human beings.

    Therefore, by wishing for Obama and Aboulafia to become mainstream, you are wishing for a day when the Jones’ and Smiths cringe with embarrassment upon hearing their names called out in class.

    So you’re not wishing for improvement for the country, just a shift of who’s on top, and for the oppression of a new class.

    Which improves nothing.

    And gets us a guy who is unqualified for the job into the presidency on the power of a petulant, self-indulgent desire for change for its own sake.

    If liberals would stop oppressing minorities through the institutionalized racism of horrible public education, which we are locked into because of the partnership between the Democratic Party and teachers unions, we wouldn’t have to worry so much about creating social programs that keep them in perpetual poverty – they could just get ahead on their own abilities.

  3. Mitchell Aboulafia says:

    Todd,

    A distinction that philosophers sometimes make between accidental properties and essential ones may be helpful here. That you may have red or blond hair is a one of the features of who you are, but I don’t think that you would want to say that it is at the heart of your identity. And I also don’t think that you would want to be evaluated for a job based on the color of your hair. On the other hand, if you are a congenital liar or an honest person, these are relevant in some fundamental way to who you are (and to an employer who might want to consider these facts in hiring you).

    There is no reason that one’s name should stigmatize a person and mark one as attractive or unattractive. We have treated names as essential properties of people because we have associated certain stereotypes with their names. It would be much better if we were to treat names as if they were more accidental, not unimportant, but not so important that other people can use them to define us, even before we get to show who we are.

    Needless to say, I am wishing for an improvement of the country and not just a shift regarding who is at top. And I surely don’t want anyone with short Anglo names, including my spouse who has one, to cringe with embarrassment because no one is making fun of my “exotic”name. This is not a zero sum game.

  4. Fred X says:

    Liberal Arts major supporting Obama. Why am I not surprised!

  5. AndrewN says:

    Someone bagging on liberal arts majors. Why I am not stunned in my seat?

    Trolls aside, great post. It’s never going to be some big national story or coverage that Obama is attractive to many voters for simple reasons like this, but he is. And it’s not somehow illegitimate.

    One reason I’m enthusiastic about his candidacy is that like me, he is a third culture kid, one who grew up in a country other than that of his parents. TCKs aren’t usually fully invested in either their parent’s culture or their host culture…they are a mixture of the two, hence the name.

    Call it a shared attribute: if someone is similar to you, you’re more likely to like them. If you like them, you’re more likely to vote for them.

  6. Burnet Oliveros says:

    Good job! Having grown up in the deep south in the 50’s with my polysyllabic vowel-rich surname (O-li-ver-os accent on the 3rd syllable), having no teacher ever be able to pronounce it, having yearned to be just like everyone else (Smith, Jones, whatever), I appreciate what you’ve said here. I succeeded in getting rid of my unwieldy name by marrying early. Then I divorced & married another. Then I divorced once more & decided I was tired of using other people’s names & always having to explain who I am. I returned to my birthname and have been comfortable with it ever since. It looks Spanish, which people assume it is until they look at me (blonde & WASPy-looking as one can be).

    True, it is NOT a zero-sum game. It’s about accepting differences & allowing people to be who they are — not forcing us each into identical boxes. Thanks for expressing this so well.

  7. l. kolb says:

    LOL my name is fairly common. “Kolb” it’s german, i think. Only four letters, count’em, 4!!! Still people can’t pronounce it. I have been called “knock” ,”Klob” ,”Blok”…just about everything but “Kolb”.
    This is partially the fault of my ancestors, who thought they could Americanize the name by saying “cobb”. Still, you have to wonder how people made it through the second grade without learning the basic rules of the English language. It’s just your everyday Phonics.
    I do hope Obama’s plans to boost the education in this country are not put off for too long, because of the war and economy. These people can’t even read a 4 letter word!
    now, Applonia, i am still trying to say YOUR name.
    just kidding
    LK

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