The conventions behind name signs and naming are well known to members of the deaf community: what gets to be a name sign, who can give another person a name sign, when name signs are used and how to adjudicate duplicate name sign use in a local community, are just some of these cultural standards.
There are conventions (past and present) about signing in public. In the past, before Children of a Lesser God and Heather Whitestone made signing a little bit cool, deaf people were sometimes more reticent about signing big in public spaces. Whether this was to avoid calling attention to difference, for privacy, safety (to avoid becoming an easy target for crime), personal style, or all of the above, there have always been reasons why signers might want to tone it down.
Signers today might modify their signing style if they are concerned that their signing could be mistaken for gang signs or if they do not want to be overseen. Eavesdroppers who know ASL can lurk anywhere, and the default assumption is what you sign in public is public. Signing in a corner or under the cover of a coat is a way to make a conversation private. We’ve all done this at some point.
Not as many of us have altered our use of signed language in public for fear of being mistakenly identified as a gangbanger, though there are stories of deaf people – usually young adult men, usually brown or black, who have been picked up by police for looking suspicious. If you are in an area where there is known gang activity and you fit some demographics for gang membership, e.g. young and male, it is prudent to curtail the use of your signs as a safety measure.
All this is to point out the ridiculousness of the Grand Island Public Schools controversy of Hunter Spanger’s name sign.
First, if you saw a white three year old in Grand Island, Nebraska making movements with his hands that somewhat mimicked the shape of a gun, would “Gangbanger!” be your first thought?
Second, did anyone else think “Ronald Reagan” when they saw Hunter’s name sign? When I was living in Southern California in the 1980s, the name sign I saw used for Ronald Reagan was two-handed R’s making like wagging guns – bang, bang, BANG, BANG! Given the redness of the state of Nebraska — I don’t mean this kind of red –I found it kind of amusing.
Third — and here is where I bow to the expertise of people who know much more about naming conventions in ASL than I do – (scholars like Sam Supalla, for instance), does this even fly as a name sign per ASL-using norms? And if it doesn’t, what does THAT mean for this kid?
There is also this: numerous news stories have referenced Hunter’s name sign as a “registered” S.E.E. (Signing Exact English) name sign – see here and here and here. I couldn’t find anything about this practice of registering S.E.E. name signs, and I’m hoping Deaf Echo readers will enlighten me.
I think this issue about naming goes deeper than the Grand Island controversy, which has been resolved.
You know, naming is something we humanoids don’t take lightly, and it is also something we don’t get to do all that often. Parents get to name children, who may have something to say about this later (and sometimes do).
Humans get to name non-human animals, who don’t say anything (that I know of!) about this peculiarity of our species. Although maybe I’m being too hasty with this latter point – I perhaps should saunter over to the next building and ask a colleague about her experiences with animal communication and naming. What did Nim have to say about her name?
Some of us name inanimate objects. I named my first car ‘Guinevere’ because she was fair and hailed from Britain.
Friends give each other nicknames. Folks entering new language communities sometimes give themselves names that are more user-friendly in that language – Houssama becomes Sam, Barack becomes Barry, Dolores becomes Dolly.
Then there are the other people – not parents — who “name” humans.
I’m thinking of my Lebanese ancestors, who, upon arriving at Ellis Island, were given the name ‘Abraham’ as a variation of ‘Ibrahim’, the latter of which was provided instead of the ‘Maloof’ tribal name because my ancestors were wily Middle Easterners trying to get past a quota (so that they could cause harm). As the family tells it, the switch from ‘Maloof’ to ‘Ibrahim’ was ours; the move from ‘Ibrahim’ to the Anglicized spelling ‘Abraham’ was imposed on us. Many of us have family stories of Ellis Island immigration officials changing surnames and first names – it is the American way, after all.
When you are seeking opportunity and hope, you don’t sweat the small stuff, right?
There is another group of people who change names: teachers.
This can be a bit more insidious – consider the teacher who changes Roberto’s name to ‘Robert’ because it is “easier”. (Easier for whom, I ask?) According to my friends in the southwest, this happened more often than not at Indian boarding schools; it seems Navaho names don’t trip easily off the English monolingual tongue. Change the name, change the cultural perception — right? Or is it change the name, change the child’s perception of her culture? You tell me.
All this leads me to think about how deaf kids get name signs — especially those of us who were mainstreamed. In my case, it was a (hearing) SEE teacher who gave me a name sign, doling them out to students one by one at the start of the second class meeting. It wasn’t until much later that I learned about the conventions of name signs – that a Deaf person gets the honor of naming you in the community. (I suppose in some cases it might be a CODA who does this – I’m hoping experts will weigh in with their thoughts here.)
Since the only people who knew my first name sign were hearing people who weren’t native users of ASL, I stopped using the name sign that had been thrust on me by someone who wasn’t a member of the community and waited for my naming to happen — the right way.
As it turned out, the Deaf person who gave me my name sign was also an educator. The name sign morphed a little once I started travelling internationally – the ASL ‘T’ was modified into the European ‘T’ for reasons that are obvious to anyone who has travelled through Italy! Again, it was Deaf people who made that modification. As a newcomer, I trusted the community to make that determination.
English-speaking children often use the retort “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” when they experience name-calling (which is a fun little expression in itself, yes?), but names can hurt. Not just taunts, but actual names.
The boy named Adolph Hitler Campbell is a case in point. What effect has his name had on his life so far?
Children don’t get to choose their names: parents in this culture have a lot of latitude when it comes to making decisions about their children’s lives – naming, education, body modification (ear and nose piercing, circumcision, cosmetic surgery, neuroprostheses, tattoos).
It may be the case that sometimes a child’s name ought to be changed if there is potential for harm, but how is this determined?
Who gets to name?
*Feeble attempt at philosophical humor! One of these days I’ll write up a paper on ASL naming…