“Do celebrities change their names in order to be on the same pedestal as their ‘less ethnic sounding’ counterparts?” – Simran Takhi

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By Simran Sahiba Kaur Takhi 

What do the actors Mindy Kaling, Kal Penn and television presenter Konnie Huq all have in common? It’s the fact they make use of names that aren’t actually on their birth certificate and this poses a few underlying problems. In order to highlight them, it’s necessary to ask yourself the question: Why did these talented individuals feel the need to change their names in the first place?

In many cases, the name change arises because of the perception that their birth names are too wordy, not catchy enough and not western enough to be appreciated or taken seriously. For example, in an interview by Tara Fowler for Digital Spy, Kal Penn, (birth name Kalpen Suresh Modi) said: To this day, I’ve never been completely sure whether it was [because it was] less ethnic sounding or just [because it was] monosyllabic and that was easier.”

The implications of Penn’s words are tragic. To have contemplated a name change because it’s ‘less ethnic sounding’ presents a barrage of problems such as perpetuating a feeling of otherness attached to names that aren’t anglicised. With many examples of famous figures changing their names to ones that are thought to be more ideal for professional purposes, this creates a sense of a power balance for those who feel they have to adopt a different name in order to be on the same pedestal as their ‘less ethnic sounding’ counterparts.

Names can be rich in meaning in relation to one’s cultural or religious identity which is often the case for people of colour. In the book Nasty Women, consisting of a compilation of essays by women of colour, Nadine Asiha Jassat talks about her feelings towards hearing her name being frequently mispronounced and  therefore having a major part of her identity stripped away from her.  She said: “My name spans continents, in it as in me, are multiple cultures, faiths and ethnicities coexisiting and thriving in one. My name carries my heritage and is at the same time the future I aspire to.”

Whilst mispronunciation and name changing are two different issues, Nadia highlights how names can have rich meaning attached to them – a meaning that can be overshadowed by a name that supposedly makes other people’s lives easier. For instance,  Mindy Kaling’s birth name is Vera Chokalinam which, according to the Mindy Project Star, refers to the incarnation of a Hindu Goddness but this remains unknown to many for the sake of making use of Mindy.

Don’t me wrong. It’s not that I condemn those who do change their names but rather, I feel that it’s wrong to do so when the purpose of changing  is to pander to other people. Having said this, I was  encouraged by reading about former Blue Peter Presenter Andy Akinwolere’s decision of reverting back to making use of his Nigerian birth name – Ayo Akinwolere. This came after Ayo reflected on why it was that names should be anglicised for the purpose of fitting in.

I believe others who have felt the need to change their name should follow suit because a name and what it can represent, deserves to be championed.

About the author / 

Simran Takhi

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