by D Sohi
Naming can be a spiritual journey. You discover more about yourself. You take your newborn child’s personality into account during the selection. (“Do they look like an Aaron or a Luke?”) For those belonging to the diaspora, naming is a way to continue the link to their ancestry. For my family, it was non-negotiable that I would be given a traditional name despite being born in the UK.
My first primary/elementary school was multi-cultural, so teachers barely bat an eyelid when faced with my name. After we moved, I joined a more local primary school which wasn’t by any means diverse. It didn’t matter, because the school’s mantra was to be welcoming and inclusive. I didn’t feel different despite my appearance and my “different” name, and for that, I’ll always be grateful. Secondary/high school was a different matter. As can be expected in an environment where reputation is everything, and insecurity and hormones are rife, my difference wasn’t embraced or understood. Vocalisation of my name even resulted in uproarious giggles in a couple of instances; the spiritual meaning behind my name became irrelevant and faded in my consciousness. A handful of teachers asked dismissively if I had a nickname without attempting to try my pronunciation tip. ‘It’s too long.’ It’s three syllables, like Samantha or Jemima. I understand that my unique name would throw anyone off: that’s not a problem for me. The problem lies in their willingness (or unwillingness) to try. I anglicised my name and left it at that, unaware just how much damage was being inflicted on my sense of self.
Now, as I embark on joining the workforce fulltime, I can only wonder if my “difference” affects my chances. Do recruiters take one look at my name and think ‘Pass’? It’s something that plays on my mind whenever I complete an application or compose a cover letter. This was especially the case when, recently, an experiment carried out by the BBC unveiled a disappointing (but unsurprising) result. Applications sent out under the name “Adam” were offered 12 interviews: 8 more than those under the name “Mohamed”. The sample size was, admittedly, small, however, it proved that minorities’ complaints about discrimination weren’t unfounded. For some, complaints of name discrimination might come across as childish moaning; if minorities had what employers were looking for, then we would get interviews, as simple as that. It’s commonly discussed in academia and, what I like to call, Social Media Academia (movements, dialogue and educational tweets, essentially) that privilege and bias play a part in life, let alone the recruitment process. It’s common sense, in fact, that if someone is averse to difference in any way, they’re not likely to change that mindset when faced with a candidate who isn’t “traditional” in any sense.
How do minorities overcome this? Hanging over this conversation is the idea of anglicising names or just transforming them altogether. That seems the easiest option – but is it? As someone who developed two or three variations of my name, I can attest to how fractured I feel as an individual. As fractured as one can feel with multiple online identities, my own identity is split according to my various names. Uttering the anglicised form of my name is a reminder that being myself is unacceptable to others who want me to conform in every way. Therefore, while using a “Western” name may appear easier on the surface, it doesn’t change a person’s visible difference. It doesn’t change their ethnic background. A name also doesn’t indicate how a person will be as a worker or whether they will fit in to the company’s own character. Sadly, the corporate world doesn’t wait for the sand to finish passing in the hourglass; decisions are made in seconds.
In fact, placing the responsibility of this problem solely on minorities’ heads isn’t fair nor effective. It’s asking more of an already-marginalised section of society. Companies need to take it upon themselves to be more inclusive in their hiring. So many capable and enthusiastic individuals languish in a void with their talents going to waste. It all begins with accepting the otherness of one’s name. Acceptance that each individual is unique and that uniqueness can strengthen organisations – not bring it down – fosters a healthy work environment where everyone wants to be there because they feel they belong there.