It’s the question every Starbucks addict and barista hopes goes smoothly. You know it well – those times where you say, “Brittany,” and your cup turns up minutes later with “Bethany” scrawled across it. For the many of us whose names don’t sound quite as all-American, “Athbi” turns into “Anthony” and “Tova” becomes “Matilda.”
Names influence every moment of our daily lives: making friends, applying for jobs, introducing our partners to our families. They embody our religion, our ethnic and cultural makeup, what our parents hoped we would become, and what people assume about us.
TV programs, movies and the news all lend a hand in stereotyping people of certain ethnicities and races by reinforcing prejudices already set into society. Ziva, one of the agents on the patriotic-themed TV show NCIS show is Israeli; many of the “bad guys” are named Mohamed, Ahmed or Karim. What’s the common theme? They’re all Muslim men that want to inflict fear. Who are the main characters? Mostly white men with “American-sounding” names.
Black and Latino characters on television are hardly exempt from such treatment on NCIS. The trend lives in shows like Empire, The Vampire Diaries, The 70s Show, Glee, Modern Family, Ugly Betty, and Desperate Housewives, just to name a few. We see black men and women stereotyped as the “magical” best friend, brash, tactless, hypersexualized or criminals. Latino men and women are often hypersexualized or shown as criminals, but they’re also depicted as maids, gardeners, and immigrants – often undocumented – with no class. It’s amazing how deeply Orientalism penetrates our society.
Is your name Mohammed, Ahmed, Karim, Aysha, Fatima or Mariam? You’re either a Muslim terrorist, oppressed, sharia-fundamentalist or barbaric. Is your name India, Ebony, Jamal, Darrell, Shaniqua or Jaquan? You must be uneducated, “ghetto,” a violent thug. Is your name Jose, Jesus, Lola, Carlos, Maria, or Lupita? You must be an “illegal immigrant,”a housekeeper, taking away jobs from Americans. Is your last name Goldberg, Stein, Cohen, Fink, ______man or Spielberg? You must be rich, own all of the money in the world and be an extreme Zionist. Is your last name Patel, Li, Nguyen, Shah or Wang? You must be smart, obedient, have no life, and be rich. These assumptions become embedded in our culture and create an intangible perception on how white America views people from different races, ethnicities and religions.
Many employers won’t consider job applications from non-Anglicized names. If they find someone with the same credentials but with a mainstream name, they will prefer them over Jose, Imani, or Ali. Many people have to tweak their names just to get a call back. According to UC Riverside public policy professor Karthick Ramakrishnan, research shows that “job applicants with Anglo names are 50% more likely to get callback interviews than those with distinctly African American names and identical resumes.” I have an “exotic” Hebrew name but because of my last name, I sound like I’m from a good, well-off Jewish family. That’s a rare privilege for people with non-Anglo names.
Religion and race, too, go hand-in-hand name discrimination. Black men and women who allow their hair to grow naturally are discriminated at work and school, and are seen as exotic beings whose hair screams, “Touch me!” How many black women do you see on mainstream media with natural hair and “black-sounding” names? Almost none at all.
Like many Muslim women like Samantha Elauf, who just won her case against Abercrombie and Fitch, are torn between choosing a job or keeping their freedom of religion and dressing accordingly. You’ve probably also heard about Tahera Ahmed, a hijab-wearing interfaith relations director from Northwestern University, who was discriminated against on her United Airlines flight because she wanted an unopened Diet Coke for hygienic reasons. Her belligerent flight attendant stated, “We are unauthorized to give unopened cans to people because they may use it as a weapon on the plane.” But what if the attendant saw her name by looking at her ticket, and Tahera wasn’t wearing hijab? Would she still have been a victim of Islamophobia?
Names give such beautiful meaning. Why wouldn’t someone want to name their baby in another language that gives something special and honorable to the baby? My name, Tova, means good. Reem means gazelle. Jamila means beautiful. Tariq means road. Jaquan means companion. Ahmed means much praised. I think the picture is seen. I pity those Americans who chose to be ignorant and not get to know someone based off of their name.
A few months back, a white woman and her daughter, who was about my age, were returning a book of baby names to the store where I work. Out of curiosity and good customer service, I asked what they disliked about the book. The daughter responded, “I could barely pronounce half of these names!” Her mother nodded in agreement.
I was aghast, insulted and looked down at my name tag. How could someone not like those beautiful names? Is it sad that I could guess which types of names they were talking about? With a forced smile, I quickly completed the return and return the mother’s money, holding back my own hurt.
This takes me back to my original question. What is an American name? Is it Sarah, Allison, McKenzie, Taylor, Jessie, Kyle, James and Holly? Does it have to sound familiar in order to be American? What about Native Americans – do their traditional names and their ancestors’ names count as American?Before and since immigration to America began, non-Anglo names have been the norm. Resistance is rebellion to change, and I believe many people chose to be ignorant due to this.
Our society is a growing multicultural organism. It will take centuries to break the cycle of systemic racism, racial profiling, unjust murders of black men, women and children, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, systemic poverty and other social injustices that plague America. We must not forget the people who have been murdered in cold blood due to immigrating to this country. We need to truly embrace all differences, especially different names. Prejudices based on names are just part of the umbrella of hatred in our country.
Once we as a society learn to embrace the world’s array of backgrounds and understand how people have suffered based on racist prejudices and stereotypes, we will evolve into a more just and united people.