After a brief lockout, the NBA finally began its new season on Christmas Day. Along with controversial trades including one that sent former Laker forward Lamar Odom to the rival defending champion Dallas Mavericks, another Laker’s decision to make a personal change has become the talk of the “twitterverse.”
No stranger to judgment or controversy, the baller formerly known as Ron Artest legally changed his name to Metta World Peace in September. World Peace told ESPN Radio’s Stephen A. Smith, “Metta is going to be the first name and it means like friendship, love and kindness. “World Peace is going to be the last name, so everybody can get ready to buy their World Peace jerseys.”
The word “Metta” also has origins in the Buddhist tradition. It is a Pali word that loosely translates to the English equivalent for “love.” “So we use the Pali word ‘Metta’ to mean Loving-kindness – not the ordinary, sensual, emotional, sentimental kind of love,” one online Buddhist library states.
Yet, many people seem to feel the opposite of “love” about the name change. During the handful of Laker games that have been played so far during this shortened season, “Ron Artest” and “Metta World Peace” have both been Twitter trending topics, with many people ridiculing World Peace’s new name. The conversation has gotten so intense that I felt compelled to jump in.
Let me begin by saying that I would be a hypocrite if I did not admit to initially making fun of the name change myself–for pure entertainment purposes. I still have my questions about how long it took announcers and commentators to say World Peace’s new name with a straight face. I joked about his teammates teasing him. I wondered what his coaches and teammates call him, what his mama calls him…I would bet money that Kobe still calls him “Ron.”
Still, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m disturbed and somewhat annoyed by some other people’s responses to the name “Metta World Peace.” The most interesting aspect of these reactions is that people are acting like this has not happened before. As accustomed as we may be to calling Metta World Peace Ron Artest, decades earlier people knew Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as Cassius Clay and Lew Alcindor, respectively. They may not have come up in an era when they would have been trending topics, but I’m sure people ridiculed their name changes and had difficulty adjusting.
Someone suggested to me that “Muhammad Ali” was probably more easily accepted than “Metta World Peace, but I respectively disagree. Not only did Muhammad Ali change his name, he joined the Nation of Islam, an organization that was challenging the very nature and fabric of America at the time and that remains controversial today. What would make anyone assume that a reference to Islam was easier to swallow in 1960s conservative Christian America than one Buddhist term that sounds like English (you know like “I ‘met a’ boy”) and two English words for which we should all be striving anyway?
This brings me to my second point. What is so wrong with “World Peace?” The way people are responding, one would think that he changed his name to “Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em”–but y’all didn’t have a problem uttering that on the regular, did you? Would we be this critical of his name change if he had changed his name from Ron Artest to Mark Smith?
For those who argue that “Metta World Peace” is just not “normal,” allow me to offer a big cliche. There is no such thing as normal. What makes “Ron Artest” normal and “Metta World Peace” abnormal? It’s not any easier to pronounce, and it’s only one extra syllable. Particularly as people of color who are often criticized and stereotyped for the “uniqueness” of our own names, we need to be especially careful about the way we judge what other people choose to call themselves. Some people think “Shaniqua” and “Nia” are just as abnormal as “Metta.” (And y’all know they get more “unique” than that.)
While most of us simply walk around our entire lives with a name that someone else gave us before our personalities even developed, Metta World Peace had the courage and sense to research a name that reflected the person that he wants to be and the life he wants for himself. I respect that. If you are aware of the “troubled” and sometimes violent history of Ron Artest, especially in the NBA, and if our thoughts and words truly frame our actions, then by naming himself “World Peace” he may be attempting to speak a better self into existence. Who can be mad at that?
These discussions of “normalcy” disregard the history of oppressed people who do not define what “normal” is and never did. A name is simply a label. It’s the difference between a “doormat” and a “welcome mat.” Both are objects that you walk on before you enter a particular dwelling, one just has a different connotation than the other. If the difference between the words “door” and “welcome” in reference to an object can change the way that one thinks about it–no one wants to be a doormat, but people like welcome mats–who is to say what a name change can do for an individual’s sense of self?
If the public got used to “Muhammad Ali” and “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” it will only be a matter of time before “Ron Artest” joins the list of antiquated former names along with Cassius Clay, Lew Alcindor, and Malcolm “Little.” Just as Malcolm chose to define himself by replacing his surname with a variable that represented the unknown, Ron Artest chose an ideal for which he wanted to strive. So, instead of knocking the “World Peace” jerseys, why don’t we open our minds and rock them with pride?