My mum named me after the Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachan, a suave star of Indian cinema in the 1970s and 1980s. The reference was entirely lost on my classmates at school in a very white part of southern England in the early 2000s.
When you’re that age, any point of difference is a source of deep embarrassment, and having a foreign name is just another one in the mix—from shrugging off rhyming jibes to correcting, or being too shy to correct, mispronunciations. (Amir, Ahmed—even now, the way I say my own name to people outside my family isn’t actually correct.)
But you grow into your name, I think. And as I got older I started to appreciate the relative uniqueness of it, to carry it more lightly. Whether you like your name or not, it becomes the badge you present to the world—your “personal brand.” But it’s also a source of information about you—names “send signals about who we are and where we come from,” writes Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker. And sometimes those signals can be damaging.
On August 1, Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s health secretary, accused the Little Scholars Nursery in Dundee of discriminating against his young daughter on the basis of her name. When Yousaf’s wife Nadia El-Nakla emailed the nursery to ask about places for their 2-year-old daughter Amal, she was told there were no spaces available. But a friend with a more white-sounding name who emailed the next day was offered a choice of three afternoons and a tour of the nursery. Follow-up enquiries from a journalist employing a similar tactic got the same result—the fictitious parent with the Muslim-sounding name was denied a place at the nursery for their child, while applicants with white-sounding names were given options and information on how to enroll.
It would be easy to shrug this off as an isolated incident, but it’s not. Decades of research has found that name discrimination in education and employment is very real. A cleverly designed study in the United States found that candidates with Black-sounding names needed eight more years of experience to get the same number of callbacks as those with white-sounding names, for instance. Similar research over decades has found the same effect.
I found Humza Yousaf’s story deeply troubling. I’m 33, a few years younger than he is, and my wife and I are about to buy a house together. I’ve been obsessing over the demographics of the areas we’re looking at moving to, trying to smooth the way for our hypothetical children. Maybe I should have spent the time devising a more English-sounding surname to give them.
Yousaf’s experience made me think, for really the first time in my life, about my name and the impact that it has had on my personality and my career path. Would I be a completely different person if I’d been called something different? How many doors have been slammed in my face without me even knowing about it? Is my name ruining my life?
The most recent work on this in Europe is the GEMM survey, a five-year, five-nation field study where researchers applied for thousands of real jobs using a mixture of different names (GEMM stands for Growth, Equal Opportunities, Migration, and Markets). The results are shocking. Ethnic minorities needed to send 60 per cent more applications to get as many callbacks as the white majority.
I’d thought that being from a well-represented group (British Asians) and living in a relatively diverse city (London) might shield me from the worst of these effects, but actually the opposite seems to be the case. Countries with a longer history of immigration from former colonies seemed to have higher rates of discrimination. British employers were the most discriminatory in the study, which also looked at Norway, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands. “We were a bit surprised by that,” says Valentina di Stasio, an assistant professor at Utrecht University who worked on the research. “In Britain it’s very high by international standards.”