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FPS # 00970-120 – Jesus, Jamal or John Doe

When someone is arrested, convicted of a crime and given a sentence of greater than two years, they are given a Federal Prison System Number (FPS #). In some ways they are given a new name, but in other ways their name is taken from them. True of other institutions in our world, people can lose their given identity and become just another number. 

Names can carry a lot of meaning and information about race, place, gender, culture, stereotypes, vocation, etc. My name is Jesse Edgington, of Edmonton, AB, son of Saskatchewan born parents, from a line of English/Scottish settlers to Canada. A name with a descriptor tells even more, but I have been considering how something so simple as a name, tells the story of many justice (or injustice) issues in history and today.

 The significance of names crop up again in the 1930’s

Some familiar Bible stories also give accounts of people receiving names. Jacob got a new name after wrestling with God (Genesis 32:28). Simon becomes Peter (the Rock), Abram becomes Abraham (starts wrestling with it in Genesis 12 but takes 5 chapters to become Father of all Nations) and Saul becomes Paul on the road to Damascus. Jesus (Saviour) was named by God, but he had to live into humanity and what that meant in his context. Son of a mother conceived out of wedlock, Jew from Nazareth, a lowly carpenter. He received a new name in baptism (Beloved Son), another name on the cross (King of the Jews),  and many other names throughout his life, messiah, prophet, teacher, savior and my favorite; Prince of Peace.

The significance of names crop up again in the 1930’s, in Germany during the holocaust. On a CBC radio program called Ideas, Nahlah Ayed describes the struggle of Jewish parents being forced to select names from a certain registry when naming new children, laws imposed by Nazi Germany. The episode outlines some deeply sociological, political and oppressive naming tactics that were used to identify Jews. They used well researched measures that still exist in subtle ways, even today.  

A name can be a powerful signal of a person’s race.

More recently, a study out of UCLA stated, “What’s in a name? During the last decade researchers have increasingly banked on the idea that a name can be a powerful signal of a person’s race. Several hundred studies from social scientists and psychologists have used “black-sounding” versus “white-sounding” names to uncover varying levels of discrimination via blind “correspondence audit” experiments. The studies have examined how often employers respond to black versus white job applicants based on the name on the resume, or how a perception of race from a name can affect the response rates for people who are hunting for a home, attempting to acquire health care or emailing politicians.”

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Emily and Greg are more employable than Lakisha and Jamal.” People of Colour are forced to try and “mask” their race on job applications to just get to the interview phase. 

Our name is the first thing given to us in life but is not what solely defines us forever. Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little but adopted the last name X (to symbolize his unknown African ancestral surname). After bouncing around foster homes for much of his youth, serving prison time as a young adult, he later went on a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca and changed his name to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. It seems we change our names in good times and bad, to showcase someone exciting and new or to escape brokenness and oppression of old.

He took the drastic step of changing his name 

I have a friend who changed his name in an attempt to flee from persecution (not prosecution). I have gotten to know him by participating in a men’s community reintegration group that focuses on men who have been charged with crimes associated with sexual misconduct. They have served their time, gone through court appointed programming and are actively working at improving their role in society. My friend was facing roadblocks and active hate persecution from others, so he took the drastic step of changing his name to be less identifiable to the average person. This does not mean he is free from his past, his record will stay with his new name, but it does mean that a future employer or landlord could not simply google his name and reject him unlawfully. He continues to disclose his criminal history, when it is legally required, but his new name helps him to not always  be the worst thing that he has ever done.

Names matter, and sadly in our society we discriminate against people because of them. We are not always aware of it, or we pretend it doesn’t exist, but your name can very easily be associated with your race, class, vocation, or criminalization. 

Photo by Marco Chilese on Unsplash

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