Reclaiming our names is good to humanity

“We will erase names to make recruitment fairer”. This seemingly progressive recruitment practice is commonly found in countries with widespread bias against ‘migrant names’, which results in constraints on labour market access. The idea seems to have benevolent intentions. But wait a second. What does it really mean?

Source of the image: Kaboom pics. Creative Commons

There is no culture in the world where humans do not have names. Names are fundamental to how we recognise each other, and a name is an essential part of human identity. What’s more, erasing human names has a bloody history. The most brutal crimes committed against humanity have had a common feature: they have reduced humans to numbers and stripped them of their names. For example, erasing or changing a name according to a master’s wishes was common practice during slavery.

As humanity itself changes, so do names. They are like a vibrant wave that registers ebbs and flows in ancestry lines, culture, ethnicity, beliefs and traditions, fashions, gender and family dynamics, and a sense of beauty in their sounds, written letters, and meanings. In democratic societies, individuals can and do change their names. We are able to choose what we call ourselves. However, there is a difference between changing our names because we want to — for whatever reason, including the above-mentioned vibrant waves of changes and connections — and because we need to fit in. This difference may seem subtle, but it is not. A forced change of name goes against a fundamental human right to be who we are.

Ethnicity, nationalism and racialisation

Ethnic nationalism is the foremost power governing contemporary naming practices. National laws stipulate how we can spell and pronounce our names. In practice, this relegates some names — usually those of the dominant culture — as ‘proper’, while others get marked as ethnically ‘other’ and overlooked, silenced, changed and even mocked. For example, Lucy Zelić, a commentator with the Australian broadcast company SBS, was bullied online for making an ‘insufferable’ and ‘annoying’ effort to pronounce foreign names correctly when covering the FIFA World Cup in 2018. Having an immigrant background herself, she later explained how she had to say her name at least twice in everyday encounters and was racially teased for years due to her surname. This is a form of racism: names get hierarchised in a continuum of racialisation. Black names, Muslim names, Russian names changed to Swedish in Finland, strange names, Eastern-European-sounding names, ‘unpronounceable’ names, names with a ‘funny’ meaning in my language. The list goes on. All these othering practices are measured against a singular measure: my culture.

Names are embodied

Pronunciation of a name (like any word) necessarily involves non-linguistic material components: the acoustic matter of pulses of air, larynx, tongue, palate, teeth, lips, tone, stress, rhythm, and rhyme. In short, we need to make a bodily effort to pronounce names that are not so familiar to us. And it is fine to fail, as long as we genuinely try. Those of us who are migrants and have learnt other languages as adults know only too well how it feels to be seen as less able — and even stupid — because we make mistakes and struggle with pronunciation. Wrongly-pronounced names can ‘touch’ a name-bearer affectively. One of my research participants once told me about her school memories as a migrant child in the UK:

“The teacher could not pronounce it properly, and I had stomach pains anticipating when she would call my name… It sounded something like ‘beetroot’ in her pronunciation”.

There is a big difference between not being able to pronounce a name, and not being willing to pronounce it correctly. The former is a matter of trying, making an effort, and taking an interest in other humans and world cultures. The latter is, effectively, saying: “I don’t care. You are not interesting to me”. Or, in words by Simone Weil: “’You do not interest me’. No man can say these words to another without committing a cruelty and offending against justice.”

So, what is wrong with anonymous recruitment?

And what does it have to do with humanity? There are pros and cons. Anonymous recruitment can help some groups (born and educated in the same country) but not more diverse populations.

Erasing a name is to dehumanise, to reduce people to functions. It may work in robotised labour markets, where a biped is needed to perform a certain function and can be replaced with a faster, more productive version whenever the market needs a new worker.

Erasing names in recruitment does not tackle the root cause; it only masks one’s oppressive face, discrimination and exclusion. For those who fear the ‘other’ and want to fill their offices with their mirror images, ‘otherness’ is unmistakeable on the curriculum vitae (CV), and can be picked out from details such as where a potential employee lived or went to school, and what languages they speak. The consequence of erasing names in such a banal practice as recruitment is that diversity is depleted instead of enabled. Research on racialised names shows that the positive effect of anonymisation does not go further than the first call back or an interview. Why? Because that’s the point at which those who fear the other face a real human being and are confronted with their humanity: different bodies, accents, and ways of being.

We create and care for humanity through giving recognition to each other and living together in diversity. I salute to a movement to embrace our heritage and reclaim our names: ‘My full name is Tanyaradzwa’. And this begins with: ‘My name is…’ in our mundane, respectful encounters.

Views are my own. My latest research interrogates mundane repertoires of ‘migrant names.’

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