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the politics of names: Westernised names and inequality

hello my name is

There’s a scene in the movie The Addams Family Values when Christine Baranski, as camp counselor, reads the names of the camp attendees effortlessly but pauses at the name Jamal.

‘I’m not sure how to pronounce this name,’ she says with a frown. ‘Ja..Jay mal?’

Cue eye rolls from Jamal, who is probably used to this reaction, but still cannot believe he has to endure it. This might be a reel life scene from 22 years ago, and today the United States has a President named Barack Hussein Obama, but have things changed?

In call centres in India, Malaysia and Philippines, new call centre recruits are encouraged to adopt ‘Western’ sounding names to make it easier to communicate with the callers from around the world. Apparently, the combination of accents and foreign sounding names might confuse people too much, so Siddartha becomes Sid, Radhika becomes Rads and Mohammad becomes Moe.

In China, Chinese people often adopt an ‘English name’ in a bid to sound more international. Sometimes, these chosen names may sound odd to English speakers although I personally have never met someone named Cherry, Volvo or Strawberry. Help is on the way for Chinese people, though, thanks to an American woman, Lindsay Jernigan, who launched BestEnglishName.Com, a website designed to help Chinese name-seekers avoid embarrassment. ‘We can help you find a name that is cool and unique but that won’t make Westerners feel uneasy,’ the website promises. Touted choices for names include Claire, as in Claire Danes and Jackson, as in the Jackson Five. Mars, as in Mars Bar, and Cherry, as in Cherry Cola are both frowned upon. I suppose the trick is to not use a trip to the supermarket as an inspiration in name selection.

There are two things that stick out here. One, although Indians, Chinese and South East Asians make up 2.3 billion people in the world, their names are still considered unusual or uncommon. Second, people change and adapt their names to a Western-sounding name because it makes life easier. If foreign friends and potential employees can pronounce it, the more they are likely to include you in their life, their suburbs and their environment. Obviously this is not a new phenomenon and even the best of us give in; it is why actors like Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez became Martin Sheen and Kalpen Suresh Modi became Kal Penn.

Closer to home, in a 2009 finding, researchers from Australian National University sent out 4,000 fake job applications to employers for entry-level hospitality, data entry, customer service and sales jobs, changing only the racial origin of the supposed applicants’ names. They concluded that typically a Chinese-named applicant would need to put in 68% more applications than an Anglo-named applicant to get the same number of calls back. A Middle Eastern-named applicant needed 64% more, an Indigenous-named applicant 35% more and an Italian-named applicant 12% more.

In Australia, people often pause for a few seconds when I hand them my name card. I know they are mentally calculating the risk of trying to pronounce my last name and getting it wrong. Variations of their effort include ‘Hah-ree-hand’ and ‘Hah-ray-hah-hen’ although my personal favourite is ‘Harry-hair-ran’, because it makes me think of the ginger poster child, Prince Harry trying to outrun Usain Bolt.

Initially, I used to feel guilty for putting them through this discomfort and would try to be self-deprecating about it: ‘Yeah I know, complicated last name, but hey, easy first name.’  Now, I am unapologetic because I realise that if I continue to dumb down my name, I cannot expect other people to make an effort.  It’s a self-perpetuating system.

Names which are universally accepted as easy to pronounce are simply names that have become popular over generations and across continents. Pop culture and fashion helps facilitate this slightly, and that is why people have learned to pronounce ‘complex’ names like Spielberg and Galifianakis. Just observe the red carpet during award season and you’ll notice how A-listers make an effort to correctly pronounce their designers’ names and brands. Anna Sui, Prabal Gurung, Balenciaga, and Marchesa are not what one would consider common names in the past but they are now thanks to exposure and – more importantly – people’s willingness to learn how to pronounce it correctly.

Perhaps this matter of names in inconsequential, but for those of us who do have nonstandard Western names, simple, every tasks become a decision point. Do we give our real names to the barista or do we give them an easy, fake name? Do we correct the pronunciation of someone who tried to pronounce our name or do we let it slide? Do people ask us where we’re from because our names mean we’re outsiders or are people genuinely curious?

Personally, I like how successful shows like Master of None, Fresh Off the Boat, The Family Law and even the new, polarising show, Here Come the Habibs highlight diversity in people, names and humour. I find it encouraging that the CEOs of Microsoft and Google are named Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai. When people in positions of power have seemingly complex names, it is a given that everyone else learns to pronounce it.  The next generations of Satyas and Sundars will have it slightly easier.

This article was originally published on The Huffington Post Australia.

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