Chapter 2: Language, Power, and Privilege
2.4 The power of names
Our names are intimately entwined with our personhood. In addition to pointing to you as an individual, your name also provides many clues about your membership in social categories. People make guesses about your gender, age, and ethnicity on the basis of the clues they infer from your name. For example, imagine you’re moving into residence at a Canadian university and you see your neighbours’ names on their doors. On one side is Kimberley and on the other is Kimiko. Even before you meet Kimiko and Kimberley, you’ve probably made a guess about what they look like based on their names. Your guess might be wrong because these clues arise from general patterns, not absolutes, but your experience gave you some expectations.
It can be hard to make direct observations of people’s attitudes about social difference, because it’s generally not socially acceptable to express negative attitudes towards minority groups. So instead, we can use a technique called a matched-guise study to try to draw conclusions about attitudes. It works like this: The researchers present participants with some kind of stimulus. In one study (Oreopoulous 2011), the stimuli were a set of résumés. The researchers held the stimulus constant and changed the guise that it appeared in — in this case, the guise was the name at the top of the résumé. Different employers received the same résumés (the same stimuli) under different names (different guises).
The core idea in a matched-guise study is that if you find a difference in your participants’ ratings, that difference isn’t because of the stimulus, because you’ve held the stimulus constant. Any difference in ratings must be because of the guise — the way you labelled your stimuli.
There’s evidence from social science research that employers and landlords also make guesses about people based on their names. And as you might expect, the guesses they make are shaped by societal structures of power and privilege. In a matched-guise study in Toronto, (Oreopoulous, 2011) the research team submitted thousands of mock résumés to job postings. They found that a given résumé with an English-sounding name like Matthew Wilson was much more likely to get a callback than the same résumé under the name Rahul Kaur, Asif Sheikh, or Yong Zhang, even when the résumé listed a Canadian university degree and indicated fluency in English and French. That same year, another matched-guise study (Hogan & Berry 2011) sent email inquiries to Toronto landlords who had advertised apartments on Craigslist. The landlords responded to emails from typically Arabic male names like Osama Mubbaarak at much lower rates than to inquiries from typically English names like Peter McDonald. It’s clear that the hiring managers and the landlords in these studies used applicants’ names to make judgments about their ethnicity and about their value as a potential employee or tenant.
I’m guessing that many of you reading, watching, or listening to this have names that are not traditionally English, and maybe you’ve grappled with this question: do I use my own name, or do I choose an English name that will be easier for my teachers and classmates to pronounce? On one hand, using an English name might just make daily life a little bit simpler in an English-dominant society. On the other hand, it’s not fair that this pressure to conform to English even exists! Your name doesn’t just do the job of signaling things about you to other people; your name can also be a vital expression of your own individual identity, representing a profound connection to your family, language, and community.
This is the case for many people who are working to reclaim their Indigenous languages: using a name from that language not only connects them to their ancestors, but also expresses resistance to the colonial names assigned in residential schools. When children arrived at residential school for the first time, they were given an English or French name and their hair was cut, two powerful symbols that the school intended to sever the children’s connections to their home communities. Because of that trauma, many survivors of the schools also chose English or French names for their children and grandchildren rather than names from their own languages. This was the case for Ta7talíya Nahanee, a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh decolonial facilitator and strategist, whose grandfather gave her the English name that appears on her official Canadian documents. In June 2021, in response to Call To Action 17 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015), Canada launched a program that allows Indigenous people to reclaim their Indigenous names on passports and other official documents free of charge. But when Ta7talíya applied to have her documents changed to her Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim name, the government denied her request, because of a rule that forbids numerals like “7” in legal names. But in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim orthography, 7 is not a numeral — it’s a letter that corresponds to the glottal stop [ʔ], a contrastive phoneme in the language (see Chapter 4). Ta7talíya Nahanee is currently fighting for the right to her name. In an interview with the Toronto Star, she argued: “If all of us are able to share with the world every time we show our ID, it just opens up that normalizing Indigenous language, normalizing Indigenous teachings and normalizing Indigenous ways. So please make policy that works for us.” (Keung, 2021)
Trans folks also know how powerful names are for expressing identity. If you’ve gone through a gender transition you might have experienced a sense of liberation when others call you by a name of your choice that matches your gender. And maybe you’ve also experienced the pain of being deadnamed, when someone uses your old name either accidentally or deliberately.
Deadnaming, forcible renaming, and mispronouncing names are all ways that people use language, specifically names, to enforce social structures of power. In the early 1900s when travelling by train was a luxurious experience for middle class white people in Canada, most of the train porters were Black, and all of them were called George. As historian Dr. Dorothy Williams says:
“Using Black men at that period, just 10, 20, 30 years from the end of slavery was a signal or a signpost to whites that these men should still be servants to them. […] So they didn’t have to have an identity. Just like in slavery, they didn’t have to have an identity as these Black men were now going to be called George, because that was the easiest reference most whites could make to get attention. Just call him George.” (Bowen & Johnson, 2022)
And it’s not just in the olden days that Canadians expressed white supremacy through names. During the 2021 federal election, at least one person on Twitter repeatedly referred to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh as Juggy. Of the three leaders of the main federal parties, Singh was the only person of colour. Calling him Juggy, with English spelling and that diminutive affix -y, not only erased his Punjabi-Canadian identity but also infantilized him.
These examples all illustrate what Mary Bucholtz (2016) calls indexical bleaching. Replacing someone’s name with an English one, or mispronouncing it so it sounds more English, are ways of “bleaching” that person’s identity: it strips away their connection to family, community and language, and in place calls them by a name that sounds more English, that is, more white. In other words, it’s a way of reinforcing existing structures of power and privilege.
Check your understanding
Bowen, L.-S., & Johnson, F. (Hosts). (2022). Why were all porters called “George”? [Audio podcast episode]. In Secret Life of Canada. CBC Podcasts.
Bucholtz, M. (2016). On being called out of one’s name: Indexical bleaching as a technique of deracialization. In H. S. Alim, J. R. Rickford, & A. F. Ball (Eds.), Raciolinguistics (pp. 273–289). Oxford University Press.
Hogan, B., & Berry, B. (2011). Racial and Ethnic Biases in Rental Housing: An Audit Study of Online Apartment Listings. City & Community, 10(4), 351–372.
Keung, N. (2021, August 28). Yes, her name is Ta7talíya, but you won’t see it on her passport. Toronto Star.
Oreopoulos, P. (2011). Why Do Skilled Immigrants Struggle in the Labor Market? A Field Experiment with Thirteen Thousand Resumes. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 3(4), 148–171.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action.