opinion

That's Not My Name: How What We Are Called Can Affect How We Are Perceived

By Parisa Hashempour | Wednesday 7th February, 2018

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ declared good ol’ Billy S in the most famous of all Shakespearean love stories. The rose (ironically a quintessentially English name) used in this context has come to imply that the name of things does not affect what they really are. But I disagree- a name is everything. It shares part of our history, gives us an identity and can even help forge our future.

Coincidentally, Rose also just happens to be my middle name. But the two names it’s wedged between appear a lot more difficult to write, spell and say. Parisa Hashempour (that’s me) is not a very British name. Much like my Middle Eastern features and slightly wacky sense of humour, I inherited it from my Iranian dad. Middle Eastern, African and in fact, many non-European names can often be notoriously difficult to spell and pronounce. It can be easy to get a name wrong. But when a name is such an integral part of who we are, it’s important that we make the effort to get things right.

Our names help us forge a sense of identity but they can also make or break our future. In 2004 a groundbreaking study in the US submitted identical CVs for job applications under both white-sounding and black-sounding names. Needless to say, the white-sounding names got a lot more callbacks– 50% more, in fact. And while this study comes from way across the pond, names seem to determine job prospects in the UK too. A good friend of mine with a first class degree in mathematics, straight out of a red brick university struggled for months to find work. After reading about the impact that names can have, this friend changed her Somali first name to something Anglicised and found herself snagging two interviews within the space of a week.

The dismissal of non-white names isn’t just found on this wider social scale but it also subtly works its way into the politics of our day-to-day lives. When we repeatedly mispronounce and misspell a name, when we don’t put in the effort to try to get a name right, we repeatedly dismiss a culture. And while it might make life easier to avoid making that effort, the above example shows that the readiness of people to erase, reject and Anglicise non-western names can have wider negative implications.

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Fellow members of the 'difficult names club' will know the typical symptoms– teachers shouting out the wrong pronunciation day after day in class, people emailing with extra letters added in (when they managed to enter the email address perfectly well) and even birthday cards handed to you, addressed to someone with a name vaguely similar to your own. And when your boss or colleague or friend of a friend gets it wrong too many times, it becomes too late to do anything about it. You don’t want to make that person feel uncomfortable, you almost feel bad for having a name that is hard to pronounce. It can feel pedantic to have to stop someone mid-sentence and correct them.

I have friends that see this tiresome tirade coming a mile off and Anglicise their pronunciation to evade the dilemma altogether. When I ask myself why they should have to do this, I think of my own quiet resentment and remind myself of how many nicknames I tried on as a child. All in the hope that my new name would prevent people from saying the dreaded ‘Sorry, what was that?’ Luckily, none of those nicknames stuck. What a shame it’d be for my childish insecurities to have washed away an instant signifier of my Persian culture that I’m now proud to call my own- because the power of a name shouldn’t be underestimated. Just look to Johnny Cash’s song A Boy Called Sue for how an out of the ordinary name can toughen a person up.

When we insist on misspelling, mispronouncing and mishearing non-western names, converting them into something our Anglophonic minds can more readily digest; we contribute to a MUCH bigger problem. Until we can accept a simple name, how can we fully accept a culture? Or fully embrace a person that looks and behaves and sees the world slightly differently than us?

I’m not expecting you to be able to pronounce the name of every Shiva, Rashid and Olabambo straight off the cuff. Heck, you might even get it wrong a few times. But invest the time into getting it right. Pay attention to how it is spelled. Because to dismiss my name is to dismiss who I am and where I come from. And anyway, in the words of the Ting Tings - that’s not my name.

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