Is your name ruining your life?


My mother’s name is me after Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachan, a suave star of Indian cinema in the 1970s and 1980s. The reference was entirely lost for my classmates at school in a very white part of southern England in the early 2000s.

At this age, any point of difference is a source of deep embarrassment, and having a foreign name is just another in the mix, whether it’s ignoring rhyming taunts or correct, or be too timid to correct, pronunciation errors. (Amir, Ahmed, even now the way I say my own name to people outside my family is not really correct.)

But you become your name, I think. And as I got older, I started to appreciate its relative uniqueness, to wear it more lightly. Whether you like your name or not, it becomes the badge you present to the world, your “personal brand”. But it is also a source of information about you: names “send signals about who we are and where we come from,” writes Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker. And sometimes these signals can be damaging.

On August 1, Humza Yousaf, Scottish health secretary, accused Little Scholars Nursery in Dundee of discriminating against his young daughter. based on his name. When Yousaf’s wife, Nadia El-Nakla, emailed the nursery asking for places for their 2-year-old daughter, Amal, she was told there were no places available. But a friend with a whiter sounding name who emailed the next day was offered a choice of three afternoons and a nursery tour. Follow-up surveys of a journalist employing a similar tactic obtained the same result: the fictitious parent with the Muslim-sounding name was denied a nursery place for their child, while applicants with sound-sounding names blanche had options and information on how to register.

It would be easy to see this as an isolated incident, but it is not. Decades of research have shown that name discrimination in education and employment is very real. Cleverly designed study in the United States found that applicants with black sounding names needed eight more years experience to get the same number of callbacks as those with white sounding names, for example. Similar research more decades found the same effect.

I found Humza Yousaf’s story deeply disturbing. I’m 33, a few years younger than him, and my wife and I are about to buy a house together. I have been obsessed with the demographics of the areas we are considering moving to, trying to pave the way for our hypothetical children. Maybe I should have spent some time devising a more English last name to give them.

Yousaf’s experience made me reflect, for the first time in my life, on my name and the impact it had on my personality and my career path. Would I be a completely different person if I had been called otherwise? How many doors have been slammed in my face without my knowing it? Is my name ruining my life?

The most recent work on this subject in Europe is GEMM survey, a five-year field study in five countries where researchers applied for thousands of real jobs using a mix of different names (GEMM stands for Growth, Equal Opportunities, Migration, and Markets). The results are shocking. Ethnic minorities had to send 60% more applications to get as many callbacks as the white majority.

I thought that belonging to a well-represented group (British Asians) and living in a relatively diverse city (London) might protect me from the worst of these effects, but in reality the opposite seems to be the case. Countries with a long history of immigration from former colonies appeared to have higher rates of discrimination. British employers were the most discriminatory in the study, which also looked at Norway, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. “We were a little surprised by this”, says Valentina di stasio, assistant professor at Utrecht University who worked on research. “In Britain it’s very high by international standards.”





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