Call Me By My Name

As well Covid-19, racism has been in the news this year. Paul Christian is a member of our advisory board. He is writing a series of articles about what it is like to be a black man with a learning disability.


What’s in a name? A name links to your identity and your birth rite. That symbolises value and prestige. And it’s also to pay respects to your ancestors. It’s a name that was given to you with care. To carry on their legacy. It’s a sense of pride – passing the metaphorical baton onto the next generation. When someone calls you by a different name, when really you want them to call you by your actual name, it can feel like someone butchering and injuring the heart and the essence of your character, who you are, it damages you from the outside in.


If someone repeatedly calls you by a different name even when they know your name it’s like they don’t even want to get to know you. Which tells you that have no use for you. That you are nothing.


Using our name properly it means that we are thought of, worthwhile and that we are actually visible. It shows that we do have feelings for one another. It makes your relationship more real.


For example this happens to me at church. I have spent a lot of my time going to church. I have been to the same church for years alongside people with very complicated multi cultural names. It’s odd but it is the spiritual people who don’t remember my name. As you sense it’s really hurtful. They say it’s to do with old age but it is still hurtful. I have been going to the church a long time so you would have thought the person there would have gotten my name right. It’s a black person so it’s hard to understand. I think this wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t disabled. It’s really damaging – there’s a balance because - there are people who are trying to encourage you to move forwards and people who are trying to drag you back and erase you from existence. Our name is a part of our existence.


There is a stigma about people thinking that we, as black people, we all look the same. People will just plainly say that we look the same – the same skin colour and hair styles. It’s all about trying to divide us into different entities. We should be cautious about treating people who superficially look the same as having the same identity. We may, to some people, look the same but we definitely aren’t the same at all. There are differences to our character, behaviour and attitudes as with everyone else.


People from a different or dominant culture, who may find it hard to say a person’s name, might want to change or shorten it to something easier for them to say and a sound that is more familiar to them. This is another way of trying to alter who you are to fit their reality and what works for them.


On 5th April 2021 an item on BBC News reported that actress Thandie Newton said she is reverting to the original Zimbabwean spelling of her name Thandiwe (pronounced Tan- Dee -way) in future.


All of Newton’s films will now be credited with her real name Thandiwe. The actor said ‘That’s my name. It’s always been my name. I’m taking back what’s mine’.


The actor, whose full name is Melanie Thandiwe Newton, said her name was originally misspelt in the credits to her first film called ‘Flirting’ with Nicole Kidman. As a result Thandie Newton became the widely used spelling and use of her name and stuck with the actress for three decades.


There is power at stake here. People wouldn’t like it if we started calling them by different names just to make it easier for us to say or to sound more usual. Don’t under estimate the power in a person’s name. Take the time to ask people how they would like to be called and how to say their name correctly even though it might feel pretty awkward and a bit intrusive.


Names counteract invisibility. Names give you back your identity.