From Mohammed to “Mo,” Hung to “Hunter,” Debelah to “Deborah”—Canadian society often pressures people with non-Western names to accept nicknames molded to whiteness. Confronting the racism that drives this expectation is long overdue.
A name is an important part of one’s identity. Asking folks with non-Western names, particularly immigrants and people of colour, to go by another moniker isn’t nothing—it’s a marker of Canada’s desire for assimilation rather than multiculturalism.
This assimilation echoes a white colonialist history. Non-Western names are often considered difficult to pronounce, while complicated English, French, and otherwise European names are accepted without hesitation.
Learning to pronounce non-Western names correctly is incredibly easy. But the prevalence of awkward, insensitive, and harmful interactions can cause folks with names uncommon in Canada to feel insecure about a foundational aspect of who they are.
Different people value their names differently—and that’s okay. Some are comfortable switching to using an anglicized version, and that experience is no less valid than those who keep using their birth name. However, the larger problem of cultural intolerance prevails.
First-generation immigrants often feel pressured to choose their emotional battles and are forced to ignore microaggressions to succeed in white-dominated spaces.
For example, white-sounding names on a resume are more likely to be hired or receive work benefits, regardless of the applicant’s level of experience.
And when a manager doesn’t put in the effort to learn the pronunciation of someone’s name, it may seem natural to accept their “easier” nickname because of the inherent power dynamic.
Although it’s important for immigrants, people of colour, and other people with unique names to feel empowered to make their experiences known if they choose to, it shouldn’t be up to them to push to change the norms of whiteness that create the expectation they conform to anglicized names.
Change must start with white Canadians, the people who benefit from and perpetuate this pressure.
White folks must put in the effort to learn to pronounce non-Western names correctly. They must accept corrections to their pronunciations without awkwardness. And when they hear someone else mispronounce a peer’s name, they should step in and issue a polite correction themselves, not let the moment pass by unacknowledged.
Just because a name isn’t a familiar one doesn’t mean it should be anglicized for white peoples’ convenience—everyone should feel free to use their birth name and have pride in it, if they choose.
—Journal Editorial Board
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