I remember my first day of secondary school like it was yesterday. I was born in Peshawar, Pakistan and my family and I moved to the UK when I was three. When I was four, I began studying at an Islamic Primary School, where to no surprise, the vast majority of the children were of colour.
I wasn’t truly exposed to Western culture till that first day of secondary school, when the teacher called out my name for the register. “Sarah Harris.” I remember so distinctly how every face turned around, eager to place a name to the new faces they would be spending the next 5 years. They looked confused when they spotted a brown faced girl with bushy eyebrows and a headscarf.
I went to a fairly small private school for girls. There were less than 10 people of colour in the whole school, only 1 of which was in my class – she’s still one of my closest friends to this day. I didn’t understand why everyone looked at me with such confusion on that first day of secondary school until a few years later.
I don’t think my parents ever considered the significance of having a Western sounding name on the day that I was born. They had no plans to ever leave Pakistan and over there, both ‘Sarah’ and ‘Harris’ are incredibly common names, that hold historical importance in the Islamic faith. They didn’t even consider that my name could ever prove to be advantageous.
Everyone else in my family had typical ethnic names that most white people found hard to pronounce. My brother, Hamzah, was nicknamed ‘Hammy’ by his friends at school. My brother, Zaid, whose name is actually pronounced ‘Zay-Eed’ was now simply, ‘Zed.’ My dad, whose full name is Mohammad Harris Haseeb, is referred to as ‘Harris’ by his colleagues and friends. And my mum, Umama, often found her name being misspelled or pronounced as ‘Uma.’
It’s common practice for those coming from abroad to give themselves a ‘Western name.’ Most people do this for the convenience of others who find their name too difficult to pronounce. But why is it that we’re altering our birth names, just to make life easier for other people? If people in the West have no problem pronouncing ‘superdupercalifragilisticexpialidocious,’ then why is it so difficult for them to say Ahmed in the correct way?
Shruthy Nitanjan, a worker at a call centre in the Midlands, realised her name was getting in the way of making sales. After telling her customers her name was instead Samantha and altering her accent, she found customers more willing to engage: “People would start talking slowly when I said my name, like I didn’t know English. A guy even flirted with me when I was Samantha.”
With the sentiments behind the Black Lives Matter movement still sparking a much-needed revolution, employers are under more pressure than ever to present a more diverse and inclusive workforce. Research conducted by the Nuffield College’s Centre for Social Investigation found that British Citizens from an ethnic minority background have to send 60% more applications compared to white people.
This statistic was broken down even further by ethnicity, showing that Pakistani people had to make 70% more applications, Nigerian and South Asian had to make 80% more and Middle Eastern and North African were at 90% more.
Similarly, a BBC report test that sent out identical CV’s from applicant’s named ‘Adam’ and ‘Mohammed,’ found that those with an English-sounding name were offered 3x the number of interviews that an applicant with a Muslim name would be offered.
We don’t choose our names. We’re usually assigned them and spend our whole lives answering to them. So why is it that some of us are facing more difficulties in life based on the label that we didn’t even get to choose? Name discrimination isn’t exactly a type of bigotry we’d commonly associate with racism, but it’s something most people of colour have faced at one point or another.
From having our name made fun of on the playground at school, to not getting a call back from an employer because it sounds too ‘ethnic,’ we need to start calling people out on this prejudice where we can. And if you’re struggling with pronouncing someone’s name, just ask them for help, it’s really that simple. There’s no need to patronize them by giving them a nickname they don’t want or butcher it by completely mispronouncing it. Simply, ask them.