I recently read this from a youngish gentlemen. It reflected much of my life, so much so that I’d like to say a few things if I may, here and now.
I have lived a privileged life. It is hard to deny that. My father is a surgeon. He earns a lot of money. That money afforded him to bring me and my brother up at the best public schools, to give us the best sports equipment, the best tutors, and the favors for jobs. As a result, my college applications were impeccable, and I got into a prestigious state school with a full ride. In most respects, I lived on easy street.
But my name was Kiren. It was not Michael, John, Patrick, Jim, Steven, or Will. It was Kiren. Pronounced, “K” as the “C” in “Corn”. The “ir” as in “ear. ” The “en” as in “in”. K-ear-in. K-ear-in. K-ear-in. K-ear-in. This is not meant to evoke pity, or commiseration. When I was 10, I tried to get my classmates to call me Mike or Michael, my middle name. Not because I was necessarily embarrassed of my name, though I might have been, but because I was tired of correcting people. Tired of smiling as they fumbled over the pronunciation. Tired as they made what seemed like to them innocuous comments, “Oh, like the beer” or “That’s an interesting name.” I didn’t want an interesting name. I wanted just a name. I wanted people to call me by a name and not to think about it, to not comment on it. As I grew older I came to love my name. I took pride when I gave it, but there was something still bothering me. I was still annoyed at having to explain it. Why couldn’t it just be my name. The way James, Michael, Kayla, Melissa, Rachel, John, or even Malcolm, are just names. I was tired of being unique. At some point, you just want to be.
So, now, why do I sign my name with my middle name, Michael? I will tell myself simply because it is my full name, so why not. Or I will be proud of my middle name: the Arch Angel Michael, the warrior of God who cast Lucifer from Heaven into Hell. Who wouldn’t want to be name after him? And the for the rest of the time, simply to inform others that I’m not that much of an other. That my skin may not be white, but I have a good Catholic name, so I have a good Catholic upbringing. That I know what it’s like to be white and can fake it until I make it. That I won’t rock the boat. That you will be able to understand me when I interview. That I won’t ask for weird holidays. That I won’t smell like cumin and cardamom . That I shower regularly. That I don’t look like my name. That I can pass.
All of that. That is why I use “Michael.”
I grew up in a small Michigan town, 60 miles north of Detroit. It is 88% white. I was raised Catholic. For all intents and purposes, I am white. Culturally. My beard and skin tone would now make that hard to believe or understand. But even in those early years, I knew something was different. Despite how I grew up, I have been reminded on a daily basis that I can never be white, I can never be American. Because through the simple question asked so often, “where are you from…no where are you really from?” I am reminded that I do not belong here even if I am from here.
What is even the purpose of bringing this up? I don’t expect or desire sympathy, I simply want you to stop asking me where I’m from even after I tell you I was born in Detroit. I am tired of it. I am American. We all are American. Yes, us brown folks, us black folks, and everyone in between. If we are not American yet, we want to be. But don’t misunderstand us, we don’t want to be white, we simply want to be American. Figure out the difference, and we’ll finally start moving forward.
Kiren Michael Valjee