What’s in a name?

what's in a name

I have always refused to adapt or anglicise my name to make it easier for English speaking people to pronounce. I have heard it all, from “Bieber”, “Baby”, “Biba” to “Barbara”, “Barb” and “Bib”. I will correct once or twice but from thereafter they’re on their own, and my expectation (and often respect) of them drops. 

This might sound harsh to some, however mispronouncing a person’s name or not acknowledging the person at all because you cannot pronounce their name is dehumanising. It is a form of microaggression and comes with consequences. When I say consequences, I mean the emotional load this comes with for the person on the receiving end. The emotional load that seemingly simple phrases as “oh that’s too difficult for me to say” or “can I call you [fill in the gap] instead?” carry is heavy. Such microaggressions can lead from lack of self-esteem and confidence to anxiety, depression and PTSD.

Many of us – immigrants, racial minorities etc. – don’t have the privilege of calling out and correcting the (in most cases) white Brit in the room, as this might mean us losing out on opportunities in the future or being seen as a troublemaker or as “too sensitive”, as “we were just joking around”. 

Name discrimination is one of the most common forms of bias in the UK, especially in hiring. This means that for many of us with unfamiliar or ethnic-sounding names it takes much longer to get in front of the employer even if our qualifications and experience is the same or better than those with Western Europe and United States sounding names. A study launched by the British Academy in 2019 revealed that on average 24 per cent of applicants of white British origin received a positive response from employers, while only 15 per cent of minority ethnic applicants, who applied with identical CVs and covering letters, received positive responses.

Thandiwe Newton, an award winning Hollywood actress, recently reclaimed the original Zulu spelling of her name after 30 years of Hollywood anglicising her name and deliberately dropping the “w” in credits. Thandiwe means ‘beloved’ in the Shona language. The actress says: “That’s my name. It’s always been my name. I’m taking back what’s mine.” That’s how powerful and liberating it feels!

My name is not a made up name. It is a real name, with roots and history that I am proud of. Ask me about it and I will happily tell you more. However, everything else is just a microaggression (or as Sope Agbelusi in an interview in Conscious Growth column has called it “aggression” as there is nothing micro about it for the person on the receiving end). 

Listen attentively, pay attention and make an effort, as your privilege of “choosing” not  to learn how to say someone’s name properly might harm the other person and contribute to the lack of belonging, anxiety and lack of self-esteem they experience.

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