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Name discrimination: why we need to stop telling people they have a ‘difficult’ name

Poorna Bell has faced decades of confusion, racism and unconscious bias around her ‘difficult’ name – and it’s not OK

“So how do I pronounce your name?” Linda* asked.

For context, Linda is someone who had known me for around two months, who I’d gotten to know through socialising with friends from the gym.

It was a reasonable question. My name isn’t designed for the western tongue – Poorna is Sanskrit, a language far older than English, and if someone asks me genuinely and respectfully wanting to know, I oblige. And so I did.

Except Linda’s response wasn’t respectful. “Yeah, I can’t pronounce that,” she barked. “I’ll give you another name that’s a bit easier. What about Sarah or Caroline?”

My heart stopped, my face grew hot and that familiar nauseous feeling started in my stomach, as it always did when I was confronted with someone who was making me feel like I didn’t belong. It reminded me of when I was 16, growing up in the home counties and starting a Saturday job at Burger King.

I’d had my share of people making fun of my name as a teenager, but I’d never had someone try to whitewash it before. Until my manager said to me: “Can I call you something easier? What about Pumbaa?” Yes, as in Pumbaa from The Lion King. I wasn’t even going to be given the courtesy of being named after a person, but a fictitious warthog.

Name discrimination: "Not to dismiss anyone’s experience, but having a ‘difficult’ name is a different experience altogether for a person of colour.

I hadn’t said anything back then, but at the age of 38, I was damned if I was going to let Linda get away it. So I pulled my lips tight, and replied: “No.”

But Linda still didn’t get the message. “Yeah, I think that’s what I’ll call you, Caroline,” she said.

“You can call me that,” I replied calmly, “but don’t expect me to answer.”

“And,” I continued, channelling the famous Uzo Aduba speech around her name, “if you can learn how to say Tchaikovsky, you can learn how to say my name.” Linda didn’t respond, and I don’t know if what I said sunk in, but in any case, it wasn’t about her. For the first time in my life, I’d been brave enough to respond back properly. I didn’t brush it off with a joke like I normally do, or apologise for my name being hard to pronounce.

“People with a white-sounding name are 74% more likely to get a call for a job interview versus those with an ethnic-sounding name”