The Value in a Name

How are the names of people of colour degraded and underappreciated?



What’s your name and what does it mean to you? Whilst a name is a word or set of words by which a person is known, addressed or referred to, for many diverse communities and minority ethnic individuals, a name means so much more than just a word used to call them. Our names are an incredibly important part of our identity. They carry deep personal, cultural, familial, and historical connections. They also give us a sense of who we are, the communities in which we belong, and essentially, our place in the world. Names evoke emotions of our birth and upbringing; discussions about the origin of our name and the reasons it was or were attributed. When parents are expecting a child, they eagerly think of names for their future child when it's born. They might think of names before the birth or after the birth but it's often all a family affair where one consults grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings. Babies can be named after someone else in the family or one of the parents as a junior version of the adult.


In every society, there are common or popular names that people are more likely to be called by. In British society, there’s a well-known collection of familiar names like James, Kate, Ben, Lily, Charlie, Tom, Rosie, Harry, Mia, Isabella, George, Sophia or Arthur, to name a few. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for England and Wales showed 4, 225 baby boys were named ‘Oliver in 2020’ while a total of 3,640 newborn girls were named Olivia! And then, on the other hand, there are unique and different names that are maybe not as widely known or commonplace like Amra, Shah, Rashmi, Shaniqua, Temitope, Heitor, Efua, Madhulika, Jawo, Leroy and Nabeel. These names often have deep meanings that symbolism good things in life, for example, ‘Nabeel’ means ‘noble and ‘Temitope’ means ‘worthy of thanks or gratitude'.



First-generation immigrants to the UK, many of which maintained their cultural, religious and social traditions here, gave their children names from their home countries as a way not only subconsciously to keep their culture and family alive, but also just to do all that they knew how. Their parents named them cultural names and they did so with their children without hesitation and almost with a sense of naivety of how their child’s names would dwell in their new country of Britain in comparison with the home country. Naming a child of colour is often a very different experience. Some parents, nowadays, think very carefully before naming their children; how the name will impact their children as they grow up, especially in this world of inequality and discrimination. We name our children popular English names rather than the cultural names we so desperately want to. We desire for our children to blend in with the class at their school or workplace rather than stand out for the sake of their name. ‘Sandeep’ become Sam, ‘Liang’ becomes Lee, ‘Ijeoma’ becomes ‘IJ’, ‘Nikita’ becomes ‘Nik’ and ‘Zeynep’ becomes ‘Zee’. Short names become the norm and longer names are frowned upon unnecessarily. When someone is aware of the importance of diversity, inclusion and no biases comes across a long, unfamiliar name, they take time to study the correct enunciation of the person’s name and refrain from certain types of questioning or assumptive responses. But on too many occasions in a wide range of industries, organisations and communities, people who do not understand the facets of the diversity of culture and upbringing make comments like ‘wow your name is so long’, ‘I’m just going to call you Jim because it’s easier’, ‘I can’t possibly say your name’ or ‘you’ll need to spell that for me’, which simply degrades the value of the names of people of colour and generates the unspoken rule that their name goes against the norm and has to be shortened because it’s just too unfamiliar to be comprehended. They are essentially microaggressions that humiliate and minimise the impact of one’s name. Who gives who the authority to assign a nickname to another person just because you are unsure how to say their name? It isn’t right and should happen. TV Personality, Yewande Biala fantastically asserted in her article in the Guardian that ‘My name is Yewande’ and ‘mispronouncing or changing people’s names is just another form of racism’. Think back to the last time someone mispronounced your name? How did it feel? And what does that show us about the value in people’s names that we often take for granted? Mispronouncing one’s name leads to low self-esteem issues and a real decrease in one’s self-confidence. Even if one accidentally mispronounces another person’s name, there should be an apologetic response that shows consideration for the other person’s feelings. There’s no harm in asking how someone’s name is pronounced. I feel it's a sign of respect. But asking how one’s name is pronounced should not be asked in a patronising and sarcastic manner. Last August, when a TV guest tried to correct Tucker Carlson’s mispronunciation of American Vice President “Kamala” Harris’s name on-air, the TV host responded with, “So what?” and mispronounced it again several times. This is not the way to go. It’s the very opposite of civility and attentiveness and is what one might clearly outline as ‘name discrimination’.


Often, cultural or religious names are mispronounced and laughed at in school and work settings. They are bullied and excluded for the perceived complexity and unfamiliarity of their name. Such not so well versed individuals display a sense of laziness and disrespect in their effort to not appreciate the existence of a person of colour’s name regardless of how different it appears to be. If you are like me, you dreaded your name being called out on the school register or your name being called out in a large staff meeting due to the fear and shame that comes with a mispronounced name that you know has so much meaning to you and your loved ones.


Calling someone properly by their name – especially when that name is not very familiar to your ears – is an act of recognising the uniqueness of that individual, acknowledging their lived experience and respecting their personal stories. Why should the fact that a person has a name that no one else has, be a major problem? It should not be normal for us to all have similar names. In a world of 195 countries and approximately 6,500 languages, our names should be diverse, unique and rich. The UK has developed into a multicultural society and we ought to show a greater understanding of the infusion of communities and cultures in our nation and how that same diversity is reflected in our names.


This causes many second-generation and third-generation immigrants raised in the UK to seek to change the name they were given altogether. Names are anglicised and stripped of any atom of diversity, culture or variety. We assign ourselves unwanted nicknames to belong. Sadly, our names are a descriptor that allows people to make quick judgments and assumptions about us. Names may even tell us about more than just our cultural or social background; a name may affect future decisions about one’s career options and even marriage options. There are several circulating anecdotes of people of colour wishing their names could and would be changed on their passports. And that isn't the only aspect of change desired. Psychology researchers found that minority ethnic individuals also “whitened” their CV’s to somehow improve the chances of an interview invitation. A cleverly designed study in the United States found that candidates with Black-sounding names needed eight more years of experience to get the same number of callbacks as those with white-sounding names. One might argue that name-blind recruitment is the way to solve this but on the one hand, it's excusing the very behaviour that condescends to the names of people of colour.


No one should be discriminated against based on the distinctiveness of their name. I mean, who creates the criteria for names that are too disparate anyway? The same way European names can vary from Italy to Russia is the same way it ought to vary throughout the entire world. In 2019, American comedian Hasan Minhaj, who often discussed his Indian-Muslim background on his Netflix show ‘Patriot Act’, used his appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to correct the TV host on her pronunciation of his name: “If you can pronounce Ansel Elgort, you can pronounce Hasan Minhaj.” The clip has been viewed more than four million times on his Twitter page. Rightly so. It’s desperately sad that anyone should feel ashamed for something as special and individual as their name. We should feel proud of our names and eager to tell people how exceptional it is. Imagine a world where everyone loved their cultural name and did not seek to change, alter or belittle it. Maybe this grand battle of names is just an unhelped lasting effect of colonisation and how European identity was viewed as supreme for so long. But like all things, they can change. We can rewrite these times so that we no longer view one groups’ names as the status quo on which other names should be based. Rather, we can forge new confidence in our originality and steeped history so new generations of children growing up will not tolerate any discrimination based on their name but call out any derogatory behaviour. A time when they are so self-assured that what some minority ethnic individuals do with their name to ‘whiten’ it these days, would seem purely unfathomable to them.


Bottom line, no one should assume that an unfamiliar cultural name of an individual means they are not truly a British citizen. The same way we wish someone to take effort with our name and aspect of our identity is the same care we should give to others. The concept of a British citizen has been revolutionised with the presence of so many diverse UK communities from Bangladesh, Mauritius, Barbados, Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, Vietnam, Turkey and countless more. Ignorance or a lack of strive is no longer pardonable. We are not a foreign singular entity in a town or city of thousands. We work in schools, offices, undergrounds, hospitals and our names matter. Our names are important. All names matter. I want to live in a world where names open doors, and not close them.


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