The consequences of having a ‘foreign’ name

Clockwise, from left: Tulisa Contostavlos, Lionel Blue, Idris Elba, Priti Patel, Mo Farah, Kanak "Konnie" Huq and Chuka Umunna Clockwise, from left: Tulisa Contostavlos, Lionel Blue, Idris Elba, Priti Patel, Mo Farah, Kanak "Konnie" Huq and Chuka Umunna

There's a multicultural panoply of names in many British school registers these days. But once many people found themselves wishing for a plain "British" name, writes Sangita Myska.

Some things in life should be simple, like booking a table at a restaurant, ordering a takeaway or pretty much anything that involves saying my name - either on the telephone or in person.

Yet, for me, it never has been.

For years, my name's been put through the verbal mincer to produce a truly ghastly feast of phonetic sausage meat - my favourite being "Fang-eater".

Growing up in the 1980s, it was the endless stream of awkward corrections and garbled pronunciation that made me hanker after a name English people could pronounce.

Having said that, I've stuck with it. Exactly why, I'm not entirely sure. I know plenty of other immigrants who have anglicised, adapted or ditched altogether their distinctly foreign-sounding names. And I've often wondered why in modern, multicultural Britain they feel they should.

Find out more

Sangita Myska

What's in a Name broadcasts on BBC Radio 4 on Friday 9 November at 11:00 GMT

These questions have led me on a fascinating journey through the landscape of Britain's immigrant names.

I started by getting the view of a kindred spirit, a woman from a small place in western India who started life with a big-name - Rohini Kanegowker.

Rohini was spared the full extent of my particular rite of passage and has always been known as Rita.

"My dad came over to England in the 60s," she says. "But I think back in the 70s, when I was born, you wanted to try and let your kids... fit in like everybody else. My parents gave me a nickname and it stuck. The principle was that I would have a name that people could pronounce. I grew up in a very small town in Kent. There just weren't any other Indian families."

The desire to fit in is a universal human trait and the stakes get much higher if you've got the only brown face in a white world.

Rita's moniker stuck but her titular travels were far from over. It was when she married a Welshman and started a family that her metamorphosis was complete. "I'm now called Mrs Green, which is incredibly simple to say," she says.

Rita may be delighted by the convenience but she acknowledges this change severed the link between her name and her British Indian identity. "When I speak to somebody on the phone who has never seen me before, they would never, ever realise that I am Indian in any way. I really, really miss that."

Asian immigrants from Uganda arrive in Britain in 1972

British Asians, like Rita, aren't the only immigrants to have faced the cultural, racial and religious dilemma of assimilation versus integration. Neither are they the first immigrants to adopt a sort of nom de plume, under which they hoped to pen a new story in a new land.

So what, if anything, can we learn from the decisions made by earlier generations of immigrants? Anglo-Jewish historian David Jacobs possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of his community's history, and his story sounds remarkably familiar.

"Certainly from the 1650s, even in those early decades of arrival of the Jews in England, it would seem that Jews were very rapidly anglicising their names. But also at that time we begin to see what we call radical assimilation. Some of those very early Jews left the centres of population like London and they went as far away as possible."

Booking a table. "It's S.A.N.G.I.T.A"

  • "What name is it please?"
  • "It's Sangita Myska"
  • "Sindy Myska?"
  • "It's Sangita"
  • "Oh, right, Sindika, right okay"
  • "No, no... Sangita"
  • "San-gita Mika"

Radical assimilation, Jacobs argues, crucially involved one thing - abandoning a Jewish name altogether.

"You were saying, look, no longer am I Braunberg. I'm now Mr Philips and I'm going to establish myself in this town and I'm going to marry someone who isn't Jewish because I'm going to leave my Judaism aside."

But by the early 1900s, growing hysteria over the arrival of large numbers of Eastern Europeans led the British Government to insist on a public declaration - in the London Gazette newspaper - of who was coming here and what they were called. The lists ran to hundreds if not thousands of names.

It appears that, for most, becoming the quintessential Englishman - regardless of whether you remained a practising Jew - meant adopting a quintessentially English name.

In 21st Century Britain, however, many second and third generation immigrants have lost the foreign sound, language and look. Surely, a foreign name is irrelevant?

Research by the Department for Work and pensions suggests otherwise, showing that jobseekers with a foreign name are at a disadvantage.

West Indian immigrants aboard a train in the 1950s

Even so, Iqbal Wahab, founder of British fine dining restaurant Roast and former chair of the government's advisory board on ethnic minorities, says prejudice is on the wane.

"It's not so much an overt bias as we used to have in the old days," he says. Instead, he blames the "appalling" way firms go about recruitment and says methods must be challenged.

He says that falls at the door of both employers and the government but argues that people from ethnic minorities carry a responsibility not to over-anticipate bias against their names. Skill and confidence trump prejudice, he says.

Not everyone agrees. Shahid Iqbal owns an engineering company in Birmingham. It was when he began applying for jobs, aged 18, that he realised revealing his Muslim identity was proving problematic.

He took a second, very British, name - Richard Brown. When applying as his English alter ego, he says, he suddenly found that vacancies he'd previously been told were filled were now open. When he launched his company, he kept Richard Brown around.

The Magazine on names

"Changing your name was a case of opening the doors," he says. "So in business now I approach my customers as Richard Brown and quite a few have openly admitted that if I'd approached them as Shahid Iqbal, they wouldn't have given us the opportunity."

According to Iqbal, things are not improving. "Just a couple of years ago, we had a very big meeting at our place where some multinational companies were present. This was in January during a major snow situation and people drove for several hours in the snow to get to our factory.

"As soon as a couple of individuals walked in and they saw that we were coloured, they literally turned round, walked back out and drove back down to London."

Iqbal has found a compromise. Feeling comfortable with it is another thing.

Rabbi Lionel Blue says he'd rather be called Pete Brown, and poet Musa Okwonga recounts how his family were forced to flee Africa because of their name.

But the social historian David Schurer suggests the rules about naming children in Britain are now a thing of the past.

Mostly, people change names to achieve what we all want - to be part of the gang, get on in life and be liked.

Should we? That's harder to answer.

Perhaps it involves two basic British values - freedom of choice and good manners. While I don't expect people to always say my name correctly, I do expect them to try.

A selection of comments will be published later

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