• I never shared my problems because I was afraid of my parents’ reactions. I kept making mistakes, the lack of parental guidance and support making me volatile. (Getty Images )
The impulse to soften ethnic names, to make them palatable to the white majority is influencing a new generation of parents.
By
Reena Gupta

16 Feb 2018 - 11:14 AM  UPDATED 12 Mar 2018 - 8:06 AM

A month ago, I caught up with my older sister who was fashioning a belly so huge it looked like she had put a pillow up there as a joke.   

As her baby was due in a fortnight, our conversation took a predictable turn.

“Have you got a name yet?” I dutifully queried.

“What do you think of ‘Uma’?”

My face scrunched up in protest.  

“No. That’s not even Indian”, was the best I could manage.

“It is, it’s Sanskrit. It’s means feminine energy, or something”.

“It just makes me think of Uma Thurman. People will call her Uma Thurman.”

“What’s wrong with Uma Thurman?”

“True. Gattica is a classic. What about Radhika? You’ve always loved that name”.  

“No one will be able to pronounce it,” she snapped. “Uma is idiot-proof, they won’t get it wrong.”   

The unnamed arbiters that she was referring to – “they” - were the vast majority of the people that my niece would be contending with: white Australia.

Many people of colour in the West end up toeing the line between asserting our ethnic identities and not riling the dominant culture.

It’s hard not to see the negotiation of naming your brown child as proxy for the forces that ethnic minorities navigate throughout our lives.

Many people of colour in the West end up toeing the line between asserting our ethnic identities and not riling the dominant culture.

We can bring exotic food to work on ‘Harmony Day’, but we probably shouldn’t speak an Asian language at work. We can ‘enrich’ the dominant culture, but we can’t make them uncomfortable.      

My own name, Reena, is an artefact of these very power relations. It’s a reasonably popular name in India, a variation of the Hindi word ‘Rani’ from ‘Maharani’ which translates to ‘queen’.  

We can bring exotic food to work on ‘Harmony Day’, but we probably shouldn’t speak an Asian language at work. We can ‘enrich’ the dominant culture, but we can’t make them uncomfortable.     

At the same time, it’s not outrageously ethnic. When I travelled through Europe, travellers from around the world told me that my name originated from their country; some Israeli men alerted me to its Hebrew origins while a guy called Marco quite pointedly informed me that my name was “very Italian”.

It’s the Meghan Markle of Indian names: non-threatening and culturally chameleonic.

“You should call her what you want to call her, not what white people will be able to handle,” I told my sister, a position that was conveniently available to me as the decision wasn’t mine to make.

But I couldn’t help but feel a weariness about the place my unborn niece would soon inhabit.

I understand the impulse to give your kid an ‘easy’ name. On one level, I’m thankful for a name that the majority of Australians can easily pronounce. I know that a more unapologetically ‘ethnic’ name would’ve been trying, especially as a kid.  

 Having an ‘ethnic’ name can have implications that extend well beyond childhood taunts.

In fact, having an ‘ethnic’ name can have implications that extend well beyond childhood taunts. In 2016, researchers from the Australian National University found that job seekers with ‘non-Anglo’ names face a staggering degree of labour market discrimination.

The study concluded that applicants with Chinese names, for example, need to submit 68 per cent more applications than their Anglo-sounding counterparts in order to get the same number of interview offers. Indigenous-sounding candidates need to submit 35 per cent more applications.

 An ‘easy’ name might just make good economic sense.    

But the impulse to soften our names, to make them palatable to the white majority, reveals the power relations that underpin Australian multiculturalism. True multiculturalism would involve a constant stage of negotiation, of give and take, whereby everyone was pushed to learn new languages, cultures, and customs. True multiculturalism wouldn’t demand sacrifice or loss.  

This isn’t just a disservice to people of colour; it harms all of us. White Australians, of course, have rich cultural origins too - English, Irish, German, Finnish, French.

If we all pushed through the discomfort and anxiety associated with other cultures, imagine what we’d be capable of? We would struggle and we would mature - we’d become a better and more complex nation.      

My niece, by the way, was born last week. Her name is Radhika*.

The words adding insult to injury in women's health care
Occasionally in pregnancy the cervix can’t hold the weight of the growing baby, who can be born too early to survive. It’s already appalling, right? Now let’s call the problem “cervical incompetence”, to rub salt into your heartache.
The hardest thing about deciding not to have children
"When it came time to try for a baby, something in me baulked. I knew that it was normal to experience a degree of anxiety when confronted with major life changes, but this felt different."
Should I roll my baby back over if she rolls onto her stomach in her sleep?
We know babies should always be put to sleep on their backs, but if they roll onto their tummy it depends on their age and capabilities as to whether you should roll them back over.
Should I have a baby alone if I can't find a partner?
Consolidating your feelings about being single is critical before deciding to have a child on your own.

*name changed for privacy reasons.