When I started writing this, I wasn’t intending to post it, just to write down my thoughts as a way of untangling them, but as I’ve gone along I decided it was worth sharing, so here we are.
I recently bumped up against my own prejudice, which is something we are rarely aware of or conscious of – no-one likes to think of themselves as being prejudiced do they? We all like to think that’s something that happens to other people, because we are far too woke and liberal and enlightened to have any prejudices. And yet we do. We all have them.
Sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it’s not so much. I have known extremely open-minded, “woke” individuals who occasionally say things like “well, I mean dressed like that she was asking for it!” or “It’s not rape if you’re actually in the middle of sex and they change their mind! She’s already consented and that’s different”, or “Trust me, I’ve lived in that country for years and they are all a bunch of absolute dickheads”. It’s also common after trauma – for example, women who were abused or raped often develop specific prejudices such as “all men are violent bastards who can’t be trusted” or “My attacker was black, therefore I will never trust another black man”.
Then there is the whole new wave of “young people never had it so good – these Milllennials can’t buy houses because they’re all buying latte’s and avocados”, or “It’s poor people who voted for Trump/Brexit” or “It’s the older generation who have done this to us”.
There are so many types and layers of prejudice – again and again we clump people together into homogenous groups and assume they are all the same, we give them all the same negative attributes and can’t for a minute imagine that some older people might be right wing and some older people might be left wing, or that not all Brexit or Trump Voters are poor, elderly, ignorant morons and some might be intelligent, young, well-off people with their own logical reasons for choosing how they vote. (By the way, this is NOT an opening for a Brexit or Trump debate, simply using it to illustrate my point!)
Which brings me to my own prejudices…
As a white, middle-class extremely privileged woman I have lived an exceptionally sheltered life and had a lot of things handed to me. I grew up in a certain environment with certain expectations and beliefs which I have over time grown into and developed into my own opinions about things. But some things are deeply ingrained, and are established into your psyche at an early age, and are hard to shake off.
For example, at the very beginning of my adoption process, one of the things that had bothered me the most was not being able to choose my child’s name. It’s such a small thing, but like many potential parents I have daydreamed about what I might name my child if I had one. Of course, when I eventually adopt, I will be able to pick out middle names, and give them my last name, but their first name is a bit sacred – research has shown over and over again that adopted children can suffer identity crises, and struggle to understand who they are and where they have come from. Finding out later down the line that they originally had a different name and their adopters changed it can be devastating and cause all sorts of emotional damage.
It is all very well researched and evidenced, and the recommendation (at least in the UK) is not to change a child’s first name unless it is so utterly weird or ridiculous that they would be easily traceable by the birth family or that it might cause them harm through bullying etc.
But I found myself thinking, what if my perfect match/child ends up being called Gary or Princess or Chardonnay? Can I really imagine raising little Chardonnay as my daughter?
Now here’s the thing about my prejudice – there are names that are fundamentally associated with class in the UK. If your name is Sebastian Carmichael Tarquin Everett Hamilton, most people will assume you are from the upper classes.
Why should they make such an assumption without knowing anything about you other than your name?
Because certain names are associated with money and stature and privilege, and there are other clues, such as in general in the UK, wealthier people tend to have more names. Prince William and Harry have 3 middle names each, (5 names in total) and many wealthy families have as many as 4 or 5 middle names to encompass their family heritage and family traditions. In the middle classes one or two middle names is common, and very often nearer the bottom end of the class system people don’t have any middle names at all. People at the higher end of the class scale have a tendency (in the current fashion) to also go for unique and interesting or classical names such as Euripedes, Titus, Ophelia, Tabitha, or Atticus.
Similarly, if you are called Chardonnay, or Kaiden, or CeeJay, or Jaxson, or Chanel or Armani, people are going to make assumptions about your class or background. It’s something we rarely talk about but most people would still make those assumptions (possibly not out loud). Most names also tend to indicate sex or gender, (we tend to have “girls names” and “boys names” as if you can’t just name a girl Mike or Ben), and certain names also imply ethnic heritage. For example, if you saw the names Tulisha,Tyrone, Amir, Mohammed, Fatima, Steve, Hamish, or Eoghan, you can probably guess their gender, and you might also make some assumptions about their ethnic heritage or their race. We can tell a lot just from someone’s name.
And sometimes you’ll stumble across a name that is completely unique, such as Wynter, and think, “I have literally no preconceptions about this person, as I’ve never heard of a name like that, and frankly, can’t tell anything about their gender, race or class based on that!”
And all of this is something I have been mulling over a lot lately. The vast majority of kids up for adoption have come from lower class, poorer backgrounds and therefore there is a high percentage of kids with unusual names, or names that are commonly associated with the lower or working classes. There are lots of popular and common names (I’ve never seen more Jaydons, Jaidens, Jaidans, and Jaydens in my entire life). Some of the names currently gaining popularity are names that I happen to really like (lots of Ruby’s and Archie’s and Alfie’s and so on).
But my own prejudice about the names is there, under the surface and is something I need to pull out and examine more closely. Why do I care so much if my kid is called Chardonnay or Jaxson? For example, if I had been called Armani, would I still be the same person who loves chocolate and knitting and cats and gin and giggling? Of course I would. Perhaps I’d have had a less sheltered upbringing, (being called Armani I imagine I might have been faced with other people’s prejudices a little more often, in the same way that petite blonde women sometimes struggle to be taken seriously in a boardroom).
But fundamentally, if I had been born and raised under a different name, with the same parents, I genuinely don’t believe my personality would be different. I believe I would still be a loud, talkative giggler who is quite stubborn and bad at listening but also compassionate and empathetic and who loves Thai food. A lot of it is connected to our sense of identity and familiarity. Many of us have known people for so long we just can’t imagine them being called something else, but if they had been named differently, we’d have simply gotten used to it and moved on. If my best friend had been called Chanel instead of Betty, I like to think we’d still have the best time hanging out, and after a while an initially unusual name would just become what that person is called, and you would think no more about it. (Also, I mean, not too long ago people were called things like Ermintrude and Eglantine, so we can’t be too judgey – fashionable names have always ebbed and flowed…)
So if the name you have doesn’t actually matter, and I don’t believe it has any bearing on shaping who you are or the person you become, then why do I care so much?
The simple answer is Other People.
I do care what other people think. I care what my middle-class friends and family will think, I care what the other mothers at the terribly middle-class mummy and baby yoga classes or dance classes will think when I call out “Chardonnay! Play nicely with little Arabella!”.
I care that my kid might be singled out, that people will make assumptions about him/her based on their name and nothing else. I care what people will think about ME, for naming my kid that (In years to come I’m not going to be pointing out that my kid is adopted, but will simply be saying “…and this is my son, Armani”). My identity as a mother will inherently be tied up with the identity of my children.
But it also raises the question – if someone has a working-class name, and is raised in a middle-class environment, so what? What happens? Basically nothing, other than the judgement of other people – something I wish I didn’t care about but I do.
I still don’t know what kind of kid I will get – happy, bouncy, quiet, clingy or active, and I don’t know if I’ll get an Alfie, a George or a Chardonnay or Armani, but it’s very useful to press up against the sharp corners of my own prejudices, to feel along the edges and see how far they go, and pull them out to examine them in the harsh light of day.
Also to test it out on the reactions of my friends and family.
I am considering exploring another match at the moment, (as my second potential match has not worked out in the end) with a child who has a slightly unusual name. On mentioning this to a couple of family members and friends, I got a couple of considered pauses, a couple of “what a weird name”, a few “what race/heritage is he/she exactly?” and at least one physical grimace/cringe at mention of the name (which reinforced EXACTLY what I thought might happen – this IS how other people will most likely react, and it also mirrored back to me where I might have got this prejudice from in the first place!).
The more I roll it around in my head, and consider it from all angles, the more I realise that I don’t (and shouldn’t) care what my kid is called. Of course it’s disappointing not to get to choose your kid’s name, but there’s a kid out there somewhere who is the cutest, sweetest, most lovable kid in the world, and who will (hopefully) grow up to be a wonderful and caring and utterly fabulous human being, and who am I to dismiss them or judge them on the basis of a name their birth parents chose for them and which they had no control over? A baby is a baby, regardless of what their name is, and my mild discomfort at calling for little Eglantine or Armani across the playground will fade once I am familiar with him/her, and it all becomes normal. Judging or rejecting a potentially awesome and wonderful child on the basis that they are called Princess seems incredibly shallow and ridiculous once you actually look closely at it from every angle. (Is it prejudice or just snobbery? I’m not sure where one draws that line….)
So, anyhow, those are my rambling reflections on discovering a little bit of my own prejudice, for what they are worth…
This is sooooo interesting, and not something I’d considered before (about not being encouraged to change a child’s name, though it makes sense). I totally get you. I think you could compromise though, it’s possible to make up ‘acceptable’ sounding nicknames from even the most bizarre names! I know that doesn’t help with the prejudice issue, but nobody is perfect!
Yes exactly, I was thinking the same thing about nicknames – most of us end up with family nicknames anyway, and it’s fine to develop your own nicknames as you go along. But the issue still remains if you fundamentally have a problem with their real name in the first place. It’s something I am thinking hard about at the moment to try and unpick “Does it REALLY bother me, or am I just reacting to it based on my middle-class upbringing and social circle?” and “Will I adjust and get used to it or not?”
Lots to think through!