Australia is a multicultural country. According to the latest census data, nearly half of Australians have at least one parent born overseas, while more than a quarter of Australians were born overseas. A big chunk of this group come from non-English-speaking backgrounds.
Why, then, do we have such a hard time with non-English names?
Piperoglou says that our need to shorten names, making non-English names in particular easier to pronounce, is intimately linked to our colonial past. “It’s tied to a racist monolingual heritage that situates non-English words as un-Australian or not Australian enough.”
In the late 19th and early 20th century, name-calling was a way of situating people within a racial order, he says, pointing to slurs directed at Indigenous people, for example. Today, this can be linked to our attachment to acceptance and the drive to assimilate. “The need to protect people from racism [by giving or adopting English names or nicknames] can stem that.”
Associate professor Sender Dovchin, Principal Research Fellow and Director of Research at the School of Education at Curtin University, adds that people with non-English names face material obstacles when it comes to things like employment. In her research of more than 150 non-English migrants and refugees living in Australia, 80 per cent reported fewer call-backs or interviews when using their birth name on their CV.
Other research has found that using a non-English name can lead to unfounded negative beliefs about one’s abilities, often based on racial stereotypes.
Huss Mustafa OAM, 65, went by the name Chris for 12 years during his professional life at the Commonwealth Bank. He says the experience of going by a western name for so long was jarring. “Christopher is a Christian name, but I’m not Christian. It felt uncomfortable, since I am Muslim”
The Turkish-Cypriot Australian arrived as a refugee from Cyprus when he was 10 years old. His family settled in Melbourne’s outer suburbs, where he says few migrants lived.
Mustafa recalls having zero support to learn English at school, and being bullied. “Nobody called me by my name. I was called a wog.”
“[Back then] if I were to tell people my name is Hussein, their eyes would widen. They’d never heard that name before.” In those days, everyone from a culturally and linguistically diverse background went by an English name.
When he finally changed his name back, more than a decade later, he says he felt relieved, since he no longer had to deny who he was. Now he goes by Huss, which is itself an abbreviation of his full name Hussein.
“It defines who I am,” he says of his name’s significance, adding that it holds cultural weight too. “In our culture, the father names the first son after their own father, and the second son is named after their wife’s father.”
Dovchin says that while it can seem trivial, for migrants and refugees in particular, “names are very important for cultural identity and hold linguistic significance.”
So what should people do if they want to get it right but are afraid of getting it wrong?
Piperoglou sees education as a large part of the solution. “We can shift our understanding of name-calling through a better understanding of our past.” He says we need to think about how we can teach people about the racism in our past, not just in schools, but socially and in the workplace, to better understand how our use of language is tethered to a long history of colonial race talk.
On an individual level, Dovchin says it comes down to effort. “It’s not really about a single mispronunciation,” she says. “What’s important is how we handle the conversation around a person’s name.
“You can say to someone, ‘hold on, it will take me a while, but I’ll get your name right’.”
Pham says that her relationship with her name has evolved. “Today my name represents my connection to Vietnam and my family. It is the name that my parents chose for me, who have always been my strongest supporters and the ones to teach me pride in who I am, where I come from and an appreciation for diversity.”
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