One of my sixth grade Hebrew students has the last name Bourdain*. Logically, his more humorous and (at that age) inherently facetious classmates have decided to start calling him Anthony Bourdain, after the famous television chef. (How kids find their references, I do not know. Then again, at their age I often slipped in jokes about then-business buffoon Donald Trump, so let’s just blame our TV screens.)
Nowadays they just call Mr. Bourdain Anthony. He hates it. He hates it with such ire, but he’s a sweet kid so he replies in comedic kerfuffle instead of direct confrontation. The interactions often occur like this:
Classmate: “Hey Anthony, what page are you on?”
Mr. Bourdain: “Umm, I think — hey wait! Stop it!”
Classmate: “What? I’m just saying your name.”
Mr. Bourdain: *muppet-like arm waving and noises of frustration*
Me: *eye roll; sigh*
It’s not that my pupil doesn’t stand up for himself. I believe he’s torn between how obviously harmless the name is and his genuine dislike of being called something he isn’t. In another reality my student would embrace Bourdain as a nickname, serving as a fairly painless initiation into the confident clique (they’re in sixth grade, let’s not go throwing around the term “popular”). In another reality he’d beat the crap out of the other kid. I’ll gladly take what I’ve got over that.
This isn’t as deep as, say, “he does not wish to compromise his sense of identity,” but it is ridiculous to dismiss the most core element of this weekly interaction: A person who receives a nickname, the subject of the transitive verb, at the center of the interaction — they call the shots. My student doesn’t like being called an unwanted name. End of the issue. This is the explanation I give when I am forced to intervene after I see, from the corner of my eye, arms flailing in the air with the melodramatic cry of “I am not Anthony Bourdain!”
Think about this in the larger context of changing lexicons in the modern age, spearheaded by the genuine, necessary movement to adjust the way people in power treat those without it, be they People of Colour, members of the LGBTQ community, or simply in male to female interactions. Contrarians and Far-Right mouthpieces talk incessantly about word policing. A concentrated effort towards being more mindful of historical implications, and correcting tone and terminology as not to put someone else down is not an attack on free-speech. It’s an attack on being an a**hole.
There certainly are “Social Justice Warriors” whose misinformed hypersensitivity sabotages progressive change, but I see them as cut from the same cloth as their politically polar opposites. Right-wingers stick their heels in with blind stubbornness. As they keep pounding over-intellectualized dogma, “SJWs” share a common error: blindness to human nature.
I am not belittling the intent behind political correctness nor justifying lax approaches to stopping bullying, if anything bullying and harassment has spiked (thanks, President Business Buffoon) and is in need of a far more serious solution. However, it is important to distinguish between malcontent and ignorance. From my classroom to the comedy clubs to the diverse social circles I move between, I often see people misunderstanding the nature of offense, on both sides of the socio-political scale.
Very few people try to offend. Bullies and bigots are aiming for insulting and destruction, not mere offense. Furthermore, offense is a sensation of reception. An offended person has reacted negatively to something presented to them, even if the person giving it may have no motive at all, positive or negative. Inconsiderate behavior is called such because it excludes the concept of reaction. This is so prevalent among children as well as intense social media users who take infantilizing digital privilege into the real world. There is no real life equivalent to posting something and walking away from the screen. You can’t just say something to someone and expect them not to feel something.
My aim is not to mansplain “the solution.” I don’t have it. I just believe my classroom exposes an overlooked simplicity to the run of-the-mill micro-aggressions that take place in many people’s lives.
It is no surprise that the one student who coined the Anthony Bourdain nickname, Taylor*, is obsessed with his phone. As soon as I call dismissal, Taylor has a snapchat per minute rate that could win an F1 racing title. I take this into consideration whenever I have to tend to his bothersome interactions with Mr. Bourdain, who is never offended, just uncomfortable that his request to be called his preferred (and real) name is denied. Interestingly Mr. Bourdain, seeking to be heard by tech-obsessed kids who care not to listen, does not have a phone.
“What’s wrong with Anthony Bourdain? It’s not mean,” Taylor will argue, reminiscent of old White men who still refer to Asians as Oriental, “His name is Bourdain!” (“Orient means East!”). Yes, I explain, but regardless of your personal logic that delivered this nickname, the Bourdain in the room wants to be called what he wants to be called. This is regardless of whether or not I like your joke, or because it’s politically incorrect or not, etc. You need to respect your classmate’s name most importantly because you need to respect others and what they tell you about themselves. Listen, don’t tell.
Although I know I will go through this rodeo again, I take the stubborn “OK, fine” with confidence for the future.
*Ironically, names have been changed to protect the identities of my students.
Gregory Uzelac is a writer, artist, and comedian based in Brooklyn, NY. Find him on Twitter and Instagram at @greguzelac.