“My Name is Khan” sparked off not just a serious debate about religious prejudices but one on names as well. AMRITA PAIN writes about this common bias.
Gita. Sandhya. Kakoli. Parul. Monimala.
“Old-fashioned, dutiful, self-righteous.”
“Eep-inducing, in today’s swank world?”
Adolf. Julius. Jehan. Abraham.
“Leaders.”“Power-seeking, demanding authority”
“Family heavily influenced by politics.”
“Umm..names of boys/men?”
Jesus. Mohammad. Bodhi.
“Calm yet spirited.”
“Names of ..people?”
They are only names. Without an entity. When a group of young adults were asked what strikes them first when they hear names, the response is varied. These perceptions have little to do with levels of education, intelligence or socio-economic status. May be if it were, there could be scope for more unbiased judgment. Yet, a darker information-processing is at work here — a perception formation that transcends distinctions of class, sex, creed, money, personal success uniting all those who react with stereotypes to prejudices, or whose prejudices grow stronger with stereotypes.
What is a stereotype?
A stereotype is a rigid judgment made on the basis of just one or two characteristics (sex, skin colour…); one which strongly influences the way we process information. A name reveals very little about a person. At the most we can deduce his state or country of origin (e.g.: L.Tarapore) or, a little carefully, religion. Like a George Khan in London may suggest NOTHING more than a possibility of the individual endorsing a particular faith. Yet a name possesses self-fulfilling prophecies about the person; when a face is attached to the name, stereotypical attributes tend to be strengthened. After 9/11, the name ‘Osama’ evoked vehement, even violent, reactions. Of Arabic origin, it means a ‘lion’. Yet it formed a strong correlation with terror actions. And thus a name developed its own inferences. It causes the bearer of the name to be viewed with acute suspicion. Especially in the US., people admit to it ‘freaking them out’.
“Who names their child Adolf? No one can name their kid that anymore; bet you wouldn’t name your son Lucifer”. Although Damien is in popular use. Mysha instantly strikes ‘a Muslim’ note in our minds, but Islam is a religion, not a language; an ethnicity or a race, not even mildly suggestive of personal traits! In Bengal (and elsewhere in the country), a ‘Chatterjee/Mukherjee’ evokes certain deference, even if the repute of the person concerned is most unpriestly. In fact, a Bengali is associated with a flurry of ‘Banerjees/Bhattacharyas’ and such like surnames (An auto driver in Chennai had once expectantly asked, ‘Bengali? Mukherjee? Banerjee? Chatterjee?’ Disappointment was writ large on his face when he heard the reply, ‘From Bengal, but a Pain.’). One cannot possibly be from THERE and not have a ‘jee’ to the name! And thus the Lakshmis and Saraswatis have to fit into pigeon holes of ‘good, dutiful girls’ whose impact is untoward if the ‘good’ is followed by a hic. A ‘Loren M.’ is most often thought to be a ‘woman’ although the feminine spelling of the name is Lauren; and an Amy Einstein never escapes being asked her promise in Mathematics.
Why the prejudice?
A prejudice — whether positive or negative — sometimes arises owing to economic competition (Jews being the worst hit target owing to their literary and socio-economic advancement). A new observed trend of ultra unique names such as ‘Apple’, ‘Mineral’, ‘India’ (none of them by Indian parents though) could leave us baffled. They leave little scope for impression formation other than ‘?’; a curiosity to learn more about the person. Sadly, these biases remain since children learn them. These prejudices are confirmed by parents, mostly. Thus a ‘Rama’ can be thought of as a ‘rustic’ but a ‘Ramola’ is ‘urban cool’. In the absence of more information, we ‘fill in’ a gap with our suppositions and a ‘name’ is most susceptible. The links are drawn from our experiences and media projected stories or views. A bit of caution is necessary and kind. We could well afford to titter at some names (Rinku Kumari, Jincy Devi, Monaliza Cha) or feel strongly against some, yet the burden is ultimately heaviest for the bearer of such names.
Amrita is a freelance consultant psychologist.
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