Race Matters

What's in a Name?

Our surnames profoundly affect both our life chances, and sense of self.  For example, in employment a NatCen study in 2010 found that despite similar experience, those with African or Asian sounding surnames needed to send almost twice as many job applications as those with traditionally English names before being invited to interview.

Aside from employment discrimination, our surnames carry a more emotional meaning and value than we'd like to admit. It's unsurprising then that people dislike their name being mispronounced, perceiving as a misrepresentation of their identity.

Even within the relatively migrant-friendly zone of football, where top selling shirts bear the surnames of players originally from Nigeria, Japan, and Eastern Europe amongst others, one can observe everyday examples of the mispronunciations of names in the media. For example, Joe Kinnear, the Director of Football for Newcastle FC,  gave a radio interview during which he misread many of the club’s players’ names: ‘Shola Ameobi became “Amamobi”...Hatem Ben Arfa became both “Afra” and “Afri”...Yohan Cabaye...was referred to as “Yohan Kebabs”. Meanwhile, footballer Cesar Azpilicueta – renamed ‘Dave’ by his Chelsea colleagues, who seemingly cannot say ‘Cesar’ - recently resorted to producing a video in order to demonstrate the pronunciation of his surname.

Foreign surnames can also be acquired through marriage. During my research I spoke to White British participants who had taken a ‘foreign’ surname through marriage and had subsequently encountered racial microaggressions. For instance, Linda Abadjian* (‘Armenian’ married name) remembers waiting for her prescription at a pharmacy and observing that two assistants were giggling and looking at a prescription form. She said,  "I instantly thought, “It must be mine, and they’re thinking, ‘How do we pronounce this? You do it, I’ll, no you do it, you do it’, and in the end they called me by the name of my house, so I didn’t even have an attempt at it". Linda asserted that such non-pronunciation of her name "happens a lot".

Jenny Legris (‘Mauritian’ married name) expressed her surprise at the sheer number of mispronunciations she has experienced for such a short surname, and how she had never encountered problems with her maiden name (Taylor) of the same length. Despite her love for her married surname, she indicated that it would have been easier to have held a complicated ‘white British’ surname. She said, "a few times I wish I had been Mrs Bennett, it’s easier, I mean, I’d even cope with a double N, double T or one N, two Ts, or one N and one T...’. Moreover, Jenny said that: ‘none of my teacher friends get the name wrong’, and this has made her a bit impatient when it is pronounced incorrectly ‘in...other walks of life’. She questioned, "Why are you saying it wrong?...other people can get it right".

One of my minority ethnic participants, Jamal Hassan Hamdaoui (‘Arabic’ name) described times when people have attempted to pronounce his name and how he feels that, "they’re trying to project that they’re making an effort to say your name". Indeed, Jamal explained that, "they’ll always say it wrong, like always...and I get people putting Bs in there". Jamal argued that such issues originate from, "the fact that there’s a construct of how you say these names and people are trying to find it...they’re looking for the...Ahmed or whatever, and they look at it and because it’s such an unfamiliar Arabic name, people always stutter with it".

Unlike footballers, my participants do not have sufficient influence to address what could be conceived as the disrespectful treatment of their surnames. One has to wonder what kind of discriminatory and anti-migrant views lie behind the phenomena that is being unable to say foreign surnames. After all, my interview quotes suggest that problems of pronunciation derive not from the complexity or length of a surname, but from the conceived otherness of of it.

Dr Emily Wykes has recently completed her PhD at the University of Nottingham, with a thesis entitled ‘The Racialisation of Names: Names and the Persistence of Racism in the UK’.

* Pseudonym names have been used to protect the participants’ anonymity.
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