Kardashian, Beckham, Sussex: each name tells a story but it’s up to you to draw the conclusion | Tomiwa Owolade

Eeach name tells a story. We assume that we can guess a person’s background from their last name. And sometimes we can. Last week I was stopped outside Liverpool Street station in London by a young man who wanted me to make a donation to a charity helping the city’s teenagers stay away from knife crime. He asked me my last name. I told him. “Nigerian?” He asked. I said yes. “Yoruba?” he further asked. I smiled and nodded.”Bawo ni” he said, which in Yoruba means something like ‘How are you? This young man is not from a Nigerian background. I was impressed enough to give him £20.

But names can also be hidden. I recently met a man called Lee Elliot-Major. He is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter and was chief executive of the educational charity Sutton Trust. Lee told me that many people thought he came from a middle-class background because he had a dual surname. In fact, he was the first in his family to go to college.

Names can be a brand. The Beckhams, the Kardashians; they are not just names but signify commercial value and status. Harry and Meghan have apparently decided to name their children Archie and Lilibet Sussex rather than Mountbatten-Windsor; they carve their own distinctive mark into the general architecture of the royal family. Many people still refer to the Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci as simply “da Vinci”, even though that is not his proper name but his birthplace; “Da Vinci” is nevertheless his brand.

But tagging people by name, or by what we assume to be their name, has not always been positive. Names have often been used to stigmatize people. Many famous Jewish actors in Hollywood – like Kirk Douglas, who was born Issur Danielovitch and grew up as Izzy Demsky – have had to anglicize their names to fit into mainstream American society.

Even today we judge people by their name. Consider the case of holiday camp company Pontins, which was recently charged with an “unlawful act notice” by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for discriminating against People of Irish travel. Pontins, who said the problems were historical, compiled a list of “unwelcome guests” of common Irish surnames.

A 2009 study by the National Center for Social Research found that applicants with minority ethnic-sounding names were less likely to be called in for interviews than people with white-sounding names. Names should excite our curiosity and not repel us. I want to know what a name means and where it comes from, but I don’t want that knowledge to dictate how I view the person who has it; Both Kurt Vonnegut and Dwight Eisenhower served in the U.S. Army during World War II, but had distinctly German last names. I have cousins ​​with my last name who could possibly pass as white and don’t speak Yoruba. There are people with Jewish last names who do not practice the faith and who are also not Jewish in the sense of matrilineal law.

Every name tells a story, but not the whole story. They should be used to start a conversation, not end it. If I ever see that young man from Liverpool Street Station again, I will ask him his last name.

Tomiwa Owolade is a contributing writer for New Statesman

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