Poorna Bell has faced decades of confusion, racism and unconscious bias around her ‘difficult’ name – and it’s not OK.
“So how do I pronounce your name?” Linda* asked.
For context, Linda is someone who had known me for around two months, who I’d gotten to know through socialising with friends from the gym.
It was a reasonable question. My name isn’t designed for the western tongue – Poorna is Sanskrit, a language far older than English, and if someone asks me genuinely and respectfully wanting to know, I oblige. And so I did.
Except Linda’s response wasn’t respectful. “Yeah, I can’t pronounce that,” she barked. “I’ll give you another name that’s a bit easier. What about Sarah or Caroline?”
My heart stopped, my face grew hot and that familiar nauseous feeling started in my stomach, as it always did when I was confronted with someone who was making me feel like I didn’t belong. It reminded me of when I was 16, growing up in the home counties and starting a Saturday job at Burger King.
I’d had my share of people making fun of my name as a teenager, but I’d never had someone try to whitewash it before. Until my manager said to me: “Can I call you something easier? What about Pumbaa?” Yes, as in Pumbaa from The Lion King. I wasn’t even going to be given the courtesy of being named after a person, but a fictitious warthog.
I hadn’t said anything back then, but at the age of 38, I was damned if I was going to let Linda get away it. So I pulled my lips tight, and replied: “No.”
But Linda still didn’t get the message. “Yeah, I think that’s what I’ll call you, Caroline,” she said.
“You can call me that,” I replied calmly, “but don’t expect me to answer.”
“And,” I continued, channelling the famous Uzo Aduba speech around her name, “if you can learn how to say Tchaikovsky, you can learn how to say my name.” Linda didn’t respond, and I don’t know if what I said sunk in, but in any case, it wasn’t about her. For the first time in my life, I’d been brave enough to respond back properly. I didn’t brush it off with a joke like I normally do, or apologise for my name being hard to pronounce.
When I told a friend about this story, she said: “Oh, I’m half Irish, so I understand what it’s like to have a difficult name.” I’ve also had a lot of solidarity on Twitter and Instagram when I’ve posted about this.
Not to dismiss anyone’s experience, but having a ‘difficult’ name is a different experience altogether for a person of colour. This is true for a number of reasons. Take, for instance, the very real bias in our careers: people with a white-sounding name are 74% more likely to get a call for a job interview versus those with an ethnic-sounding name.
Leyya Sattar, co-founder of The Other Box, a platform to increase diversity in the creative industries and celebrate people of colour and marginalised backgrounds, runs unconscious bias workshops. She says: “We often hear experiences… of people of colour with non-western sounding names changing them for an English name, then using the same credentials and getting more interviews. This shows inherent racism and the impact that name bias has on opportunities for minorities.”
Beyond that, there’s a backdrop of bias and micro-aggressions that people of colour experience in varying degrees, every day, which white or white-passing people do not. “It’s people moving away from you on the Tube, holding their bags closer to them when you walk past, or crossing to the other side of the road,” Leyya adds.
Having to navigate your own identity in a world saturated with bias, as well as being visible in a way that’s deemed unacceptable, is frankly exhausting.
It’s like having to rebuild your house every single day using the best, strongest materials you can find, but knowing that someone could come in with a sharp comment or a ‘joke’ and reduce it to rubble. Growing up in Kent, in a time before curry became the nation’s favourite, and before Diwali was celebrated on the village green, I’ve had to do this for a long time.
It starts young. Because it’s easy to say: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” when your name is William. But as a south Asian woman, I’ve grown up being told that I’m difficult simply because of my name. This means that I’ve spent the majority of my life begrudging my name, and therefore cauterising a massive source of pride and identity that comes from it. It means ‘complete’ and appears in Hindu scripture over and over again – it’s the word used by the creator god Brahma, when he finished making the universe.
But why, beyond the obvious, is it so important that we don’t make someone feel bad about their name?
“Names are an integral part of our identity and self,” Dr Pragya Agarwal, behavioural scientist and author of SWAY: The Science Of Unconscious Bias, tells Stylist. “When names are mispronounced, it negates a person’s sense of self, betraying their culture and eradicating an important part of their ethnic identity. Or if names are shortened and anglicised, it is done so for social convenience. People of colour generally – and rightly – resent the mispronunciation of their name because it amounts to a distortion of their identity.”
Of course, says Dr Agarwal, it’s not actually about mis-pronouncing a name. I’ve done that plenty of times. It’s about how we handle the conversation around a person’s name.
Women of colour in particular are among the most marginalised, and so when people make fun of our names, it’s much, much bigger than they realise. “This effect is compounded,” says Dr Agarwal, “because it intersects with the racial and gender bias that they are often subjected to, and thereby signifies a dismissal of their associated culture and social values.” So basically everything that defines and shapes us.
It also works the other way too, such as assumptions being made on our behalf because of how we look.
Theatre director Rebecca Goh, 22, told me that she’s of mixed Asian descent and her parents are Christians. She gets the reverse to me, with people assuming she’s changed her name to make it easier for others to pronounce.
“I was on shift at a local pub one evening when a young lady about my age, whom I’d been chatting to, walked up to me at the bar.
“In her slightly inebriated state, she asked me for my name. I told her, and she responded with ‘really!?’. Her abject disbelief took me aback. She pressed further with, ‘what is your actual name?’ and I responded, ‘that is my actual name’. She paused and then said flippantly, ‘Oh right, I guess that’s what you call yourself’. That affected my mood for the rest of the week, as her explicit dismissal of my assertions regarding my birth name, as if she knew better, was (and still is) so frustrating.”
I’ve had people who are terrified of getting my name wrong ask me how to pronounce it. I’ll always take the time to explain. But it’s not OK when someone listens and then still insists on calling me a different name because it’s ‘easier’.
“Is it like when someone calls me Liz, and I have to say my name is Elizabeth?” someone asked. And I had to explain that it’s like if your name is Elizabeth, but I decided I wanted to call you Lakshmi. It’s a name that erases your identity and simultaneously wallpapers over a culture that just isn’t yours.
Piarvé Wetshi, 27, a marketing manager, told me that her name is a mix of her parents’ names, which is common practice in Congolese culture. When she was six and was ordering a book in a shop, she was told by the shop assistant that she her name was ‘silly’. She went on to experience many similar comments in school.
Her advice is a warm comfort for the many of us who have had to work out our own boundaries around what we will and won’t put up with around our names.
“I’m unapologetic and I’ve learned to ignore the comments that say ‘it’s too complicated’,” she says. “But I embrace those who are open and honest and say ‘Hold on, it will take me a while, but I promise I will get it right’.”
*Name has been changed