“Say My Name”: Name and Cultural Assimilation

In September of 1997, my father immigrated from the small village of Amritsar, India to Canada. He came equipped with the cash in his wallet, the clothes on his back, and his name — Amanjot Narang. As a proud Sikh Punjabi, my father’s name is a profound marker of his cultural and ethnic identity. Like many other immigrants, he came to the Western world with aspirations of building a better future for his family, taking every opportunity he could find to make his dream a reality. He began work as a janitor in a factory and lived in the cheapest housing accommodation he could afford. Not only did my father endure financial hardships, but he also faced numerous societal pressures of being an immigrant in the 1990s. He had to deftly adapt to a different language and lifestyle than the one he was accustomed to. Voluntarily adopting a shorter version of his name in attempts to create a new identity for himself, he decided to go by “Aman”- a name that would make his life easier in the adjustment to his new home. My father did not want to be seen as an outsider whilst trying to fit into his new society, and figured that shortening his name would enhance his chances of gaining employment opportunities in predominantly white spaces. Though a seemingly small change, shortening his name facilitated substantial improvements for my father’s career. He was taken seriously at work, handed promotions, and no longer forced to sweep the factory in his janitor’s uniform. Granted, my father worked very hard to prove himself and his capabilities, but it certainly helped when his white counterparts and bosses were able to pronounce his name with much more ease. 

My father’s story is not one that is unique — many immigrants begin to question whether they should adopt an Anglo name upon arriving in a Western nation. The voluntary adoption of common Western names by minority ethnic groups and foreign-born immigrants is known as name assimilation. Over the course of the 20th century, immigrants have increasingly opted to choose names for themselves and their first-generation children that resemble the majority. The idea of name assimilation rests on the foundation of economic and social incentives. Individuals who are immigrating to North America from non-Western countries often adopt “Americanized” names in order to blend in with not only society as a whole, but also for the purposes of economic integration. In the United States, the adoption of an Anglo sounding first name among 20th century immigrants led to substantial improvements in educational attainment and labour market outcomes of first- and second-generation immigrants. 

As first names are largely influenced by labour market incentives, immigrant parents seeking enhanced prosperity for their families must often jeopardize their traditional names for the sake of lucrative economic opportunities. By adopting a “majority name”, they expect that their children’s origins will be partially disguised, protecting them from some forms of economic discrimination. In a study in the United States, it was found that ‘White’ sounding names received 50 percent more call-backs for interviews when compared to counterparts with a distinctive African American name. Similar results were obtained in Germany, the Netherlands and France, where holding a ‘native’ European name substantially increased the average probability of a job call-back. A French study found that a candidate with a Muslim-sounding name was two and a half times less likely to receive a job interview call-back, in comparison to a person with a Christian-sounding name. 

Name-based discrimination goes beyond the labour market, barring immigrants’ access to equal opportunities in the housing market as well. In much of the Western world, the choices of landlords, real estate agents, and other gatekeepers allocate individuals to the places they are living. For example, research shows that immigrants in Germany with ethnic sounding names are often bound to the rental housing market because they lack the financial resources to buy real estate. This leads to the confinement of migrants from non-Western countries to flats in poorer neighbourhoods with few amenities and more temporary housing arrangements.

The process of name assimilation ties into the bigger idea of cultural assimilation; a process undergone by many immigrants. Photo by Kerwin Elias is licensed under Unsplash CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Such instances of name-based discrimination tie into the broader discussion of cultural assimilation, whereby immigrants attempt to seamlessly integrate into the host society by voluntarily assuming their values, behaviours, and norms. Governments, private corporations, societal structures, and other stakeholders are often tempted to force immigrants to adopt the language, identity, and customs of the dominant culture. While assimilation is considered successful when the characteristics of immigrant groups begin resembling those of the host society, this can have detrimental effects for the immigrant psyche. The cost of assimilating into the Western lifestyle may mean losing one’s own cultural identity in the process. 

Assimilation not only makes immigrants miss their familiar culture, traditions, and customs, but also widens the gap between immigrants and their families through the discomfort of mispronounced names. For those who choose to keep their ethnic names, the experience of having their name mispronounced forces them into a position of having to explain themselves and their identities. Reconciling one’s place in a new environment with a mispronounced name can be humiliating and invalidating to one’s sense of self. 

Further, immigrants who shed the symbolic meaning of their names in an effort to assimilate into society involuntarily contribute to the loss of history of minority cultures living in the Western world. Many immigrants grieve the loss of their identities, becoming hyper-aware of the way their new or altered names shape their experiences. I saw this in my father, as shortening his name led him to compromise his identity and assimilate fully into Canadian culture, disconnecting from his past. My father left behind much of the culture he grew up with back in India along with the person he was for 25 years of his life. 

The question then becomes: what can be done to move away from the harms of name assimilation? To me, the answer lies in learning how to say one’s name. Social pressures do not distribute the responsibility onto white individuals to learn how to say the names of their non-white peers. When people fail to pronounce ethnic names correctly, it is an implicit form of discrimination that sends the message that someone does not deserve to take others’ time and effort to learn how to say their name. A momentary correction can make the world of a difference by affirming one’s cultural identity and preventing the subversion of minority groups living in predominantly white societies. For this to occur, immigrants must also take action to claim their given names and embrace the true meaning of their name as it relates to their origin and their identity. Immigrants want visibility, not invisibility. Ethnic minorities living in the Western world don’t want to blend into a crowd simply to avoid the issues that come with discrimination. In the perfect world, immigrants should be able to embrace their racial, ethnic, and cultural identities, whilst going about their daily lives in their newfound homes.


Edited by Derya Ekin.

Featured Image: Four Markers with Name Tags. Photo by Jon Tyson is licensed under Unsplash CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.