It's Taken Me Years To Embrace My Unique Name

by Sa'iyda Shabazz

Anyone who was born with a “unique” or “different” name will tell you there’s a time they wished for a name other than their own. A name that is easier to pronounce or spell. A name that doesn’t stop someone in their tracks to say something generic like, “Oh I’ve never heard that before, where is it from?”

My name is Sa’iyda. In keeping with the Muslim tradition, my parents didn’t name me immediately after my birth. They took time to get to know me and then gave me a name they loved and thought would fit me as I grew and moved through the world. Taking their time meant they were really giving me a name they were proud of.

But, having a unique name as a kid is the worst — all you want to do is fit in. But there’s no way to fit in when you so clearly stand out. So you may silently wish that you could swap names with someone, anyone who has a name more appealing to the world at large.

And then one day, something will spark a change in you, one that makes you realize you don’t want to blend in. In fact, you love your unique name.

When I was in junior high, I began to secretly wish my name was Melanie. Mel B. was my favorite Spice Girl, and her name was just the right amount of “normal.” As a tween, fitting in becomes even more important. Having things in common isn’t enough; it’s the stuff you don’t have in common that matters. I was not super popular with my peers, and I thought if I had a regular name at least I would have something that helped me blend in. And in a class with several girls each named Katie and Jackie, I definitely wanted to blend in with my peers.

When I heard the story of the young girl who was mocked by a Southwest Airline employee because of her unique name, I was gutted. While I was never outright mocked for my first name, I know what it feels like to not have people understand your name. Just because a handful of people have never heard of it doesn’t mean it’s something worth being mocked for. She’s only five, and I understand a lot of what her life is going to look like for the next ten years or so.

Little kids with unique names can’t walk into a gift shop and find a magnet with their name on it. My mom had to go to a catalogue to special order me pencils with my name on them so I could feel like the other kids. The little girl with the unique name will go through years of substitute teachers pausing at her name while calling attendance. Actually, she’ll be expecting the pause, followed by the “I don’t know how to say this…” and just raise her hand before they go any further. She will grow tired of having people asking her how to pronounce or spell her name. If she hasn’t already, she may ask her mom to give her a new name.

But here’s the thing I want her — and any other kids with a unique name — to know. There will be a day when it feels like you’ve finally turned a corner. Someone will hear your name and they won’t say the same tired thing everyone else says. That person will help you to see your name is a whole new light. I will never forget the day I began to see my name for what it is. I was about 15 and one of my favorite singers at the time, Willa Ford told me my name was “cool.”

For some, that may not seem like a big deal. But for a 15-year-girl who was anything but cool, it meant the world to me. Growing up with a unique name, you hear words like, “interesting” and “unique” a lot, but rarely “cool.” Hearing someone call my name “cool” greatly changed the way I felt about it. That day was the day I stopped looking at my name as a total nuisance. I still dealt with the same annoyances, but I felt a lot prouder of my name.

It’s been quite a few years since that day when I began to own my name. But every so often I’m reminded of why having that moment of acceptance is important. Last year at a talk for Glamour, actress Uzo Aduba explained to an audience of young girls, the moment she owned her own name. After asking her mother if she could be called Zoe, her mother reminded her of all the men with “unique” names and how over time society learned to say Michelangelo. So they could certainly learned to say Uzoamaka.

Yes, indeed, they can.

My parents are very proud of the name they’ve given me. Being a parent now, I understand what you go through when picking out the name for a tiny human. Of course, a name is not the only indicator that your child will grow to be an individual, but there’s a certain appreciation of self that I think kids who grew up with a unique name have more than kids who grew up with the same name as many of their peers.

I may never find my name on a t-shirt that I didn’t have made just for me, but I know that most people will never have met someone else with my name. My unique name helps me stand out and I’ve finally come into myself enough to be comfortable in that spotlight. If the world can learn to say Sophocles, they can certainly learn to say Sa’iyda.

For more unique (and not-so-unique) names, visit the Scary Mommy’s baby name section here!