Callmebymyname – it’s not that difficult
Iwas struck by the news that the actress Thandie Newton is reverting to the original Zimbabwean spelling of her first name, Thandiwe, 30 years after her name was inadvertently anglicised in the credits to her first film. It felt like a bold move to someone who spends his life having his Punjabi name mangled (‘‘Satan’’, ‘‘Samantha’’, ‘‘Satnav’’, ‘‘Shatman’’, etc.) and who, as a result, sometimes reluctantly shortens it to Sam for an easier life.
It also made me wonder, decades after immigrants of my parents’ generation turned every other Surinder into Sue and every other Giuseppe into Joe, whether our businessworld might finally be developing a tolerance of foreign names.
Indeed, academics have long traced racism through the intolerance of, and the changing of ‘‘difficult names’’.
A recent study found that between 1900 and 1930, more than three-quarters of immigrants to the United States had American-sounding first names.
European researchers have estimated that in France between 2003 and 2007 there would have been more than 50 per cent more babies with an Arabic name if there had not been an ‘‘economic penalty’’ associatedwith having one.
In the United Kingdom, repeated studies overmore than half a century have traced racial discrimination in employment through intolerance of ‘‘ethnic’’ names. One published in 2019 foundminority ethnic applicants had to send 60 per centmore applications than theirwhite counterparts to get an interview.
The UK government’s recent report on race, which concluded controversially that Britain does not have a systemic racism problem, surveyed these studies and concluded: ‘‘While these application tests show discrimination against names that are recognised as not being traditionally British, it is unclear if this effect is about race, class or perceived foreign culture.’’
Which raises the question of what the difference between ‘‘race’’ and ‘‘perceived foreign culture’’ might be and how the hell someone could work out my social class through my surname – but the conclusion was in keeping with the report’s scepticism about claims of racism.
To return to the question at hand: Are things finally changing? Are business and society overcoming an allergy to ‘‘difficult’’ names?
In 2009 the sociologist Guillermina Jasso told The New York Times: ‘‘In general the names immigrants give their children go through three stages: from names in the original language, to universal names, to, finally, names in the destination-country language.’’
The article reported that as the proportion of Hispanic Americans born in the US increased, the name Jose actually declined in popularity, which alerts us to a possible contradiction: Immigrants may anglicise their names to dodge racismwhen they arrive in a country, but they also do so when they integrate.
In general it is not always the threat of racism that compels immigrants to anglicise their names: The late Lord Hamlyn was once Mr Hamburger and changed his name at 18 because he was tired of the teasing; and Charles Steinweg, the Germanborn piano maker, apparently changed his name to Steinway in part because English instruments were considered the best.
This is what I suspect the example of Thandiwe Newton signifies. I see no particular proof that attitudes to foreign names are changing in the businessworld, but we have entered amore encouraging time where the successful children of immigrants feel they have the room to celebrate their heritage.