To all those who have ever pronounced my name wrong,
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I never thought I would quote Romeo and Juliet seeing how much I despise the play, but this quote and the meaning behind it are quite fitting for what I am about to discuss with you. If for some reason you’re not particularly knowledgeable about this Shakespearean play, Juliet tells Romeo that his name is nothing but a man made convention, without any real meaning. This might all seem quite romantic and defiant in the name of love, considering it is the family names that they bear that is keeping them apart, but let’s step back for a minute and think about real life. Do our names really hold no meaning, no substance, and so little value?
I was named Aisha after my grandmother. My grandmother named a daughter Aisha after my great-grandmother, who was also called Aisha. So you can see, the name Aisha, holds a great deal of meaning in my family, and I’m sure somewhere along the next generation, there will be a couple more Aishas. I wear the name with pride, knowing that I’m named after one of the strongest women I know. So I hope you can understand that it is frustrating when my name is pronounced or spelt incorrectly. I’ve seen my name misspelled as Isha, Aesha, Eijsa, Asia and Ayesha (I know this is another way of spelling the name, but it’s not mine) and I can’t even begin to phonetically spell out the different versions I’ve heard. For such a simple name, people seem to struggle with it. I know I’m much luckier than one of my sisters, Maryam, and cousin, Ruqaiyah, whose names are butchered daily. So why is it, even after we’ve sounded our names to you and told you how to spell it, you’re still having difficulty to get it right? I appreciate it might not be a name you have come across before, but I’ve learnt to spell Catherine in its many different variations, and learnt that the name Siobhan is pronounced Shiv-von. So why is the same effort not translated onto our names?
When I was younger, I thought perhaps our names were just a little more difficult to get your head around. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a blatant disregard here in the West to foreign sounding names. And I’m talking African, Asian, Middle Eastern…all of them. We shouldn’t feel obliged to introduce ourselves with a shortened version, a more easily pronounceable version, of our names to you. And it’s sad when I hear you ask for this too. We shouldn’t feel like our names are an inconvenience or embarrassed by the mixture of letters or length of it. Why is it that more Western sounding names are held to such high regard that we are expected to be able to spell and pronounce them correctly. I feel like there’s just a laziness with regards to foreign sounding names. Like the Orange is the New Black actress and proud Nigerian, Uzo Aduba once said about her own name, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.” Simple, right?
I remember once in Year 5, as part of a Religious Studies lesson, we were required to write down the meaning of our name for some project. We went round the class and I realised that many of my classmates either had no clue what the meaning of their name was, or why they were given that name. In fact, we soon found out that some of their names actually had no meaning at all and along with our teacher, we made up a meaning for them. Looking back at that moment, I can see the differing levels of importance a name holds in different cultures. It highlighted to me that the names and the idea of being given a name here in the UK doesn’t hold as much value as it does amongst people of colour. That is not to mean that my white peers have all been given names because they legally have to have them, but when compared to a British person of colour, I think it’s fair to say that there is not the same level of emphasis placed. It’s not just my Nigerian roots that mean my name holds such significance, but also my faith. In Islamic tradition, seven days after a child is born, we have a naming ceremony. It is then that a child’s name is officially given to them and everyone finally learns of their name. It is such an event and celebration and holds such religious as well as cultural significance. I can appreciate that in your culture, perhaps this all seems a bit much for something that can be deemed so small and insignificant like a name, but this is why I need my name pronounced and spelt correctly. It holds such an importance, not just within my family, but also my culture and faith.
You might not realise you’re doing this but I’m writing to tell you what the lasting impact can be on someone who’s name is not always given the respect it deserves. Having your name continuously marked out as different can make you feel as though you don’t belong. For some it causes embarrassment, and for most of us you just want to fit in. Our names say so much about us. They can symbolise our heritage, our identity, and other complexities that make us who we are. Sometimes I think about the future and my own children and what I will name them. I want to give them Arabic names seeing as I’m Muslim, but do I go for the more simplistic, potentially more anglicised names to make their lives easier?
It’s no secret that some names hold stereotypes (thank you Katie Hopkins for showing us the ludicrosity of this) and we’re all guilty of making an assumption of a person based on their name. But what about when that stereotype or assumption limits our professional advancement or the opportunities that are awarded to us? Did you know that Muslim men are 76% less likely to be employed than men with a whiter sounding name? And job applicants with a “black name” are in some cases, 50% less likely to get a call about an application. So in these cases, you can see that a name can be so important, that it can easily determine where we end up in life. You get people of colour in the UK changing their names to the likes of John Smith just to get an interview for a job which they are quite clearly qualified for. It’s no wonder you have people of colour deliberately naming their children with names that hide their race or heritage in order to give them a better chance in life.
I’ve touched upon the importance of names in my Nigerian family and culture, as well as in Islamic traditions. But how about those of the people of colour with Caribbean heritage, where a name can have a lot of meaning, but also no meaning at all. For the most part, those of Caribbean heritage have the names that they do, due to their ancestors history of slavery. While I can identify a person with the last name “Balogun” as Nigerian and someone with the last name “Boateng” as Ghanaian, it’s not as easy with someone of Caribbean ancestry as they have more English sounding names. There is a complicated history with the names of those that hail from the Caribbean islands as their background is not easily identifiable at first glance of their name, whereas for many of us, we can easily trace our ancestry back by our last names. But this is not to say that names don’t still hold a great significance within the Caribbean community, afterall it has historical value and shows us the strength of their ancestors.
It’s ok to stumble when you first read a name you’re unfamiliar with. It’s ok to spell it incorrectly the first time. And it’s most certainly OK to ask me how to spell or pronounce my name for clarification. I won’t be offended, in fact I would prefer this. But once it’s all been clarified for you, there’s really no excuse for mispronunciation. Of course allowances can be made as not all languages share the same sounds, but as long as the effort is being made, that will be fine.
So to all my Ades (A-day), Ebubechis (Eh-bu-bae-chee), Taiwos (Tie-woe), Seuns (Shay-oon) and Kayos (Ky-oh), let’s keep being proud of our names and start holding people accountable when our names have not been given the respect they deserve.