British Politics / Diary

What’s In A Name?

T’Rula isn’t a name that I have used since birth. It makes no appearance on my birth certificate, which refers to me as an appropriately English-sounding, Sara Montgomery. You will find no T’Rula there. As it happens, I don’t even know how to spell my last name, Funny story, that.

My grandfather came to England from Nigeria. This was back in ye olde days, when Britain was (so  Wikipedia tells me), “practising indirect rule [of Nigeria] through traditional chiefdoms” and long before Nigeria’s independence which came in 1960. My Nigerian grandfather was a Merchant Seaman by trade, and he came to Britain to help the British fight a war so trifling that, ever since, we have just referred to it as a sequel to an earlier little skirmish. That war wounded my grandfather gravely, as it did for various relatives on the Welsh side of my family, including my Welsh grandfather. My Nigerian grandfather died when my father was very young.

When he came to Britain, my Nigerian grandfather found it hard to get work/housing/etc with a weirdly ethnic sounding name (I’m sure the colour of his skin didn’t help much, either). This was back in the old times, when signs saying things like “No Black, No Irish, No Dogs” were commonplace. An ancient time, then. As there was no real hope for British humanity to see this as deeply problematic at the time, my Nigerian grandfather changed his name. So Ajai T’Rula became Jack Roberts and, with time, all paperwork that had his old name on was lost.

That’s why I do not know how to spell my own name. That was lost as a mere matter of political expediency. I have no precision to search for.

Cutting back to me, for a moment. My name was Sara Montgomery because my mum had briefly been married to someone long before she met my dad. So her Morris had become Montgomery through that. Sitting there one day at the age of fifteen, I wondered why I was a Montgomery when no one else in my family other than my brother and my mother were. It just didn’t feel quite right. But then, neither did Roberts despite more family members using that name – it was never chosen for any meaning, it was purely chosen for convenience. How white can you sound on paper? Yeah, that.

So at the age of fifteen, I changed my name. From Sara Montgomery to Sara T’Rula, by common usage. Now, all my paperwork is in that name – my bank account, my bills, my passport, my degree, and everything I’ve ever done since then. And for a while there, it was great. I mean, sure I had to deal with no one knowing how to say or spell it, but that was fine. And I had to deal with teachers not understanding why it mattered, but that was fine too. And when I started looking for jobs, I had numerous people on separate occasions insist that I put my nationality clearly at the head of my CV, just to make sure there wasn’t any confusion. And I did, and it sucked to have less space for actually useful information, but hey, I dealt with it. I even laughed it off when a bank clerk informed me in deadpan fashion that I simply wasn’t allowed to have an apostrophe in a name, as if HSBC was the guardian of all known naming protocols. I get that your computer system won’t accept it and that it isn’t you being racist but that it maybe is the initial coders not thinking this through well enough. That was all fine. Annoying, irritating, time-consuming, boring, but something I could accept in good faith as a burden I pay as a British citizen with a weird name. It was enough for me that by changing my name I’d recorded a T’Rula at Oxford University, however incorrect the spelling. That was the trade.

When 9/11 happened, I knew my name would single me out sometimes. I understood. I accepted having 15 separate “random” security searches when flying from Manchester to London to New York as part of the bargain, and I knew it was that name but that was fine. Anything to help my fellow Brits feel safe. Even when it means spending a couple of hours in an enhanced passport control in New York, sitting alongside frequent flyers from Colombia. I thought that was one a bit weird (especially when they held up the sheet music in my bag and asked me if it was some kind of code…), but I understood. I planned my travel to accommodate those inevitable delays.

I even didn’t file any complaint when I got stopped by the police outside Birmingham New Street station, when I was having a smoke between trains, travelling back to visit my terminally ill father between my tutorials at university. They stopped me for “wearing headphones while brown shortly after a terrorist incident” – someone had reported the cable hanging down my body. They had neglected to mention that it was connected to a pair of large headphones that were sitting on my head at the time, but hey, I brushed that one off. Admittedly, we did contact the police back when my brother got battered in a racist attack by an 8 man gang, and also when racists tried to firebomb my home, and daubed “Paki” on the door, and I still don’t know if my dad was acting* when he seemed as annoyed by the idiocy of picking the wrong continental slur as he was by the idiocy of their racism in general. But all things in proportion.

So I get hassle from time to time and I always have done. As a British citizen who is a little bit brown and has a weird name, it’s kinda par for the course. A pleasure when it doesn’t happen, but I can deal with it when it does. I always rationalised it as balancing out – the cost of being an ethnic balanced against the savings from not having to buy Factor 50 sunscreen all the time. I can work with that.

But then Brexit happened. I saw the rise in hate crimes. No, I mean I really saw it – on the streets as well as in the stats. I sat in taxis were the driver would happily tell me how proud of my country I should be, having just told me how all the foreign scum would have to leave now, including the ones who’ve been “breeding for decades.” I saw the lies fall from the mouths of Gove, Johnson, Farage, and plenty of others. And I’d love to pretend like my own party isn’t susceptible to the Immigrant Scaremongering, but we all know that isn’t true – my own party plays the race card whenever it’s expedient, but inconsistently beyond that. I saw the vile campaign Zac Goldsmith ran, followed by the faux-surprise from him, his colleagues, and some of the press, when the racism was pointed out. I saw the video of Owen Smith talking up Prevent, and then I saw him try to tell a young Muslim man on Question Time that he was wrong to say Owen had supported the scheme shortly thereafter. Owen, boy, I have the tapes. Don’t lie to me.

And now the details of Brexit are just starting to emerge. And it’s nothing more than the bastard child of a Tom Stoppard play being directed by a teenaged Adolf Hitler. Absurdity meets Brutality, dressed up as Patriotism. How quaint.

So we’ll have firms submitting a breakdown of British/Foreign workers in their workforce by percentage. And that’s supposed to be okay, because it won’t be in any way repressive. But think it through for a minute, and imagine how this is really going to play out. Because that might be what the Government hands down. But the businesses won’t want to fall foul. So, out of fear of being shamed, they’ll put more effort into hiring British workers. You can’t dispute that – that’s the very point of the proposal being introduced. But what does that mean in practice? Well, we already have a lot of data that shows how names can affect how submissions are graded. This happens with a noted discrimination against ethnic minorities, but it also actually just happens the whole way through – as in, some English names are consistently graded higher than others, for the same submission. I recall one study said Laura was the “best” female name to have, if you want to submit an exam, essay, CV, or whatever the submission is. But would we then demand all women change their names to Laura? I didn’t think so. Keep that one in your mind for a moment, while I digress from it (I don’t recall the best male name, but let’s assume it was Jack, and keep that one in your head, too)..

Consciously or unconsciously (and, really, unconscious racial bias is actually currently the more pernicious problem with institutionalised discrimination), employers will start moving the CVs with clearly British names to the top of the pile, and moving the not-clearly-British names to the bottom. Which would be fine, if our conception of what constitutes a “British” name accurately reflected the diversity of British citizens. I dare anyone to try to argue in the comments that that’s the reality we have right now. The reality will be more along the lines of names like “John Smith” moving to the top of the pile, while names like “Kate Osamor” would move to the bottom. Of course, there are exceptions to this – professions with tight networks, for example, might avert this problem simply by name recognition having met the individual previously at professional events. In that case, the potential for discrimination could be sufficiently mitigated. But for HR at Sports Direct or in a large NHS hospital? Not so much.

When I chose to change my name, I did it in good faith that I was British. I say that precisely, and for good reason. Because Benedict Anderson wasn’t kidding around when naming his book Imagined Communities – he did it because he knew that national identities were fluid and open the re-definition over time. National identity only works if three conditions are met:

    1. you self-identify as part of that group,
    2. the group collectively identifies you as part of that group, and
    3. there is a shared language within the group.

Therefore, changing my name was fundamentally an act of good faith. By that, I mean that I self-identified as British and English (and also European, as it happens), we all had a shared language, English, and I assumed (in good faith – meaning I didn’t force the group to comply with me) that the group identified me as British and English, too. At least, a sufficient majority did. And I do trust that the majority still do.

But in proposing this ridiculous legislative idea, my British Government is not only choosing to act as an aggressor against foreigners based on their nationality, they are also fundamentally choosing to redraw the boundaries of what is British, and of what is English. My British Government has abrogated me from the national identity group, by ensuring that for the rest of my life, every time I apply for a new job there’s a good chance I’m going to be filed in the trash can because it’s too much effort to check if I’d fulfil the quota. As for my travel, I have no doubt that the “entirely random” extra security checks I consistently face shall not decrease. Nope, I’m now going to be losing a few more hours per journey, and that’s on a good reading of the tea leaves. Unless our foreign policy (ostensibly surmised as “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result”) does actually prove to be sane and correct after all this time, or the terrorists decide to hug their way to victory, I’ll probably have to can the cans in train stations – no mobile music for me. Hmmm, I’ll probably have similar difficulty getting a bank account if I need to open a new one, too. They’ll probably be under some kind of pressure to not support foreigners equally to how they’d treat British citizens, and I know which group I’ll be falling into by default. When my apostrophe breaks their computer system, they might even report it as a terrorist attack. That would be fun. It would give me a story to tell down he pub, at least. I’ll probably need a drink in Brexit Britain. In fact, pretty much any time I have to do something official – rent or buy a car or house, for example – I’ll probably have to prove I’m not faking my nationality. I’d best take to carrying my passport everywhere I go then, just in case. That won’t make me feel second class compared to John Smith, will it?

I really do understand why the press has focussed on the impact the Conservative Conference announcements will have on foreign nationals living in Britain – they are by far the group who will feel the effects of this the sharpest. That focus is thoroughly deserved. But I write this piece to remind you that the effects will fall far wider, and British citizens with weird names or sunscreen bills below the national average, will get caught up in the process. In addition, this kind of regressive legislation will only harden the existing unconscious biases that we all carry, making every moment of our days that much more bitter while also legitimising and normalising the atrocious actions of the truly violent racists. Well played.

For the rest of my life, it seems, this Conservative Government in their frankly dangerously frivolous pursuit of a madman’s pact to leave the EU on the worst possible terms have condemned me to being a second class citizen. Reminds me of some stories I read when I was growing up, of a time we were all told had passed. I knew it hadn’t, because I saw it in my life. But we were supposed to have moved on some. Now, the most relevant song I have is Nina Simone singing Backlash Blues back in 1976. How times haven’t changed. The meaning of “British” and of “English” is contracting with every announcement this Conservative Government makes, and British citizens like myself are having our identity effectively erased in the process.

There is an easy solution of course, at least for me. I’m light enough that I could always just change my name again. I could “pass”, as it were. That would probably mean I’d bypass a lot of hassle over the years, so it would be in my assumed self-interest. And my grandfather changed his name as a matter of political expediency to ensure paperwork was dealt with at the proper speed. It would be like we have come full circle at last. I’m confident some will present this argument to me in full seriousness – I’ve already had plenty of perplexed but no doubt well-meaning people try to explain to me what a terrible mistake I’d made long before Brexit, so I don’t expect that to decrease. Indeed, there is even a whole wing of my party dedicated to the narcotic mantra of “Go Slow” – the gradualists. Tell me this – is the 80 (give or take) years since my grandfather had to change his name to be sufficiently British not long enough to have waited for a robustly positive change here? I’m something of a Crosland-loving gradualist myself in many ways, as it happens. But even my most risk averse tendencies tell me that 80 years is quite long enough. It’s time to stop nodding and start acting.

So I could change my name to hopefully avoid all the hassle of being ethnic while British in this new post-Brexit world. But to anyone who thinks that is the right solution, I must ask you this – are you rushing off to change your name to Laura or Jack right now, too?

Peace all.


*No joke, no lie. My dad was a musician who’d take work as an extra acting in TV shows, like Coronation Street and Boys From The Blackstuff. So I honestly can’t say whether the racists picking the word “Paki” instead of “Nigger” really did bother him as much as it seemed to me at the time, or if that was something of a performance on his part, to try to keep the tension more manageable for me. I tried finding a vid of him on youtube, but the Boys From The Blackstuff pub scene has been removed from there now – he’s in that, wearing a blue flat cap, if you have it.

3 thoughts on “What’s In A Name?

  1. I love that you changed your name, despite the issues that arose from doing so. Granted I advised you to wait until you were 18 and I’m so sorry that I was never able to obtain the correct spelling for you, that was never for the lack of trying.
    As a woman and a feminist I’m glad that you are one of the few women who actually got to chose her own name rather than have one handed to her by whichever man featured in her life at the time. Though I know that your reasons were personal to you and your own identity.
    As for Brexit and the aftermath what can I say. We don’t do revolution because racism is so much easier. It’s handed on a plate time after time. There are X number of unemployed and there are X number of migrants. A simple math within the scope of anyone. It’s so easy to deflect from the real issues and let those responsible avoid being made accountable.
    I hope you keep the name you chose for yourself and I’m sorry that my generation didn’t do enough to eradicate the cancerous tumour in our midst. So strong that even the House of Windsor trembles and complies whenever the need arises. You are the strongest most principled person I’ve ever met, you may have inherited much of that from your father, whereas your bloody mindedness may in part be down to me. The credit for your achievements is down to you alone but I hope Mildred D Taylor’s Roll of Thunder played a small part.

  2. What a fantastic, smart essay. I got here through Twitter, after reading the title, myself having erased my Italian-sounding name and surname for the reasons your grandfather did. It’s a pity I did it in 2012, after I constantly got rejected for interviews with my original identity.
    Unfortunately I’m not British and after I graduate I’m sure my CV will go directly to the trash can every single time after reading my nationality. I also cannot become British because May took care of that too, you know, EU spouses of British citizens are all here because of sham marriages.
    What’s happening in this country is simply disgusting and reminiscing of times we all thought were far back in our past.
    Thanks a lot for this.
    I’ll print it off for my white-British-from-the-17th-century husband who doesn’t concern himself with being at the bottom of all piles, why should he… his name is as British as any John Smith….

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