For the Urhobo people of southern Nigeria, like many Africans across the continent, names are a serious matter. Traditionally, an Urhobo child is given a name according to their family’s desire for who they might become, the hope being that a child will live up to the likeness of what their name means. Today, Urhobo children are often named by one of their parents, but historically it was common for a grandparent or an older relative to name a child in keeping with the gerontocratic culture.
In my family, the story goes that when my maternal grandfather was born, his grandfather, Abogor (“something you give respect to”), saw the baby and declared his name Shifikovie. In Urhobo, this means “this chief is a king.” His grandfather, Emoefe (“children are riches”), was a king of an Urhobo ẹkpotọ or kingdom. My grandfather would be a chief until his death, the year I was born. We never met, but my mother was pregnant with me when he died, and in honor of him, she called me Shifikovie too.
I’ve gone by the latter half of the full name for as long as I can remember — Kovie. It’s pronounced “kov-yay,” and consequently, people sometimes think it is French. But as a child, once my family departed from Nigeria, I allowed people to call me “kov-ee.” I didn’t mind it much until an ordinary day in secondary school that would later become a distinct memory, my mother asked, “Why do you let people pronounce your name like that? It’s not your name.”
I remembered that day recently when I learned that Love Island (U.K.) 2019 contestant Yewande Biala was involved in an online brouhaha with her former cast mate, Lucie Donlan. Details of the pair’s interactions on the popular dating reality show having come to light. Biala alleged that Donlan didn’t respect the pronunciation of her name. Biala also claims that Donlan asked if she could call Biala another name.
The names we are called — the names we respond to — are reflections of history, space, and culture… They might be the prayer and hope a community has for a child, and that child might be guided by its meaning for a lifetime.
It’s a familiar narrative for those of us who live in the West with non-normalized names — so-called “ethnic” names — and the incident has since sparked a conversation on name mispronunciation as a form of microaggressions. It strikes a nerve for people who are unaware of how their seemingly innocuous mistakes in saying someone’s name incorrectly—or, less innocently, requesting the use of another name for their comfort and ease—is really part of a legacy of name discrimination that people of color have faced for centuries.
By name discrimination, I am referring to the practice of systematic prejudice and exclusion that affects those who do not have names that are considered “normal” from a Eurocentric perspective, further biased in favor of Anglo-Saxon identities. Whether in the U.K. or the United States, Anglophone-sounding names are considered standard. All other names, and especially those that honor communities of color and our heritage — Black, Brown, Native, etc. — are considered strange, deviant, and even unprofessional.
Research into how names affect prospective employment is readily available and demonstrates the prejudice people of color might face if they have non-Anglophone names. It’s the reason many potential employees of color with given names that honor their ancestry often replace them with White, Anglophone-sounding ones on their résumés. According to the data, people of color get more interviews that way.
But name discrimination goes beyond employment and is experienced in other areas, such as educational institutions and representation in pop culture and entertainment. An often underdiscussed phenomenon, for example, is that of international students, particularly from East and Southeast Asia, arriving at American and British universities with Anglophone names they picked simply for what appears to be ease of assimilation. Then there is the palpable pop culture penchant for treating names that are distinct to the cultural heritage of Black Americans specifically as a pejorative. How many jokes have been endured over time about Shaniqua, Lakisha, or Tyrone? Names that bear witness to Black American history and identity.
For Black Americans who are descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States, name discrimination is inseparable from racism, classism, and the legacy of slavery itself. Famously, the vanguard fictional text Roots demonstrated the pain of Kunta Kinte’s loss of his name. Malcolm X forwent Little, designating his former surname with the letter as a testament to this multigenerational cultural loss. JoAnne Deborah Chesimard became Assata Shakur and Stokely Carmichael chose Kwame Toure, both reclaiming what was taken from them.
Of the many horrors of transatlantic slavery, the casualty of naming practices and the dispossession of the names of Africans sold and taken embody the cruelty of the practice: erasing the very essence of who people are by removing what they are called, unbecoming them, and forcing them into a mimicry of the enslavers by adopting new names at a blood price. This mimicry extends to colonialism, where religious-inspired names often replace names steeped in cultural tradition as given names, rendering the latter to a secondary position.
I know it well. Both my parents were given English first names, sometimes going by their secondary traditional names, and I have always known — even without asking — that they gave all their children Urhobo first names as a small act of resistance and decolonization. Or maybe the act isn’t so small? The names we are called — the names we respond to — are reflections of history, space, and culture. They might express the soils people descend from, revealing the peoples to whom a person belongs. Indeed, they might be the prayer and hope a community has for a child, and that child might be guided by its meaning for a lifetime.
In her response on social media, Biala, whose first name, Yewande, is Yoruba for “mother has returned,” also divulged an early memory of encountering name discrimination as a teenager exploring secondary schools in Ireland. The experience made her feel invalidated when she was asked to be called by an English middle name. It’s easy, I think, to internalize shame, especially by something that is so seamlessly a marker of difference — our names. Biala also said that it would take getting older for her to prioritize her own emotions instead of other people’s discomfort regarding her name. It’s a necessary lesson for surviving and thriving when you embody a marginalized identity.
You should know that my name isn’t “difficult.” No name is, really. There are just names that we are unfamiliar with.
Nigerian-American actor Uzo Adubo, whose full name, Uzoamaka, means “the road is good” in Igbo, once told the story of how her mother instilled pride in her name when she was growing up in Massachusetts, where people struggled with the pronunciation. Adubo asked her mother if she could be called Zoe, and her mother responded that if people could learn to say Tchaikovsky (the pioneering Russian composer), they could learn to say her name, too. The story often makes me laugh and has me convinced that all Nigerians grow up in the same household, because my parents said the same thing to my siblings and me growing up, right down to the use of Tchaikovsky. The lesson being that Anglophone societies can learn to say our Urhobo names if they want to and if they must.
By the time I arrived in the United States for college, I was determined that people would get my name right. Like many people with names that are uncommon in this part of the world, I have no problem saying it over and over again for your benefit. But you should know that my name isn’t “difficult.” No name is, really. There are just names that we are unfamiliar with.
Don’t ask me or people like me for a shorter form or an English name, and certainly don’t ask to call us something else. Even the seeming compliment that I sometimes get that my particular name sounds French is steeped in the idea that what is Europeanized is more acceptable, more beautiful. Kovie, which stands in for Shifikovie, is a beautiful name, and not because it sounds French. It’s beautiful because it confesses my Urhobo culture, my family history, and my mother’s love and prayer for me.
So, call me by my name. Indeed, call us by our names.