There is a clip on Youtube from Jimmy Kimmel Live titled, ‘Mahershala Ali Reveals Real Name.’ Can you believe that Ali’s real name is even longer? Yes, that’s what the entire video is about. Kimmel dissects his name in every way possible for a laugh. And laughs he gets. It should come as no surprise then, that he kept it going through the Academy Awards. He asked the guests to yell ‘Mahershala’ instead of ‘surprise’ for the Hollywood tourists entering the space. The guests complied.
Kimmel was surprised to learn that Ali’s name is from the Bible. As a Hebrew name, it automatically sounds ‘exotic’. On a black Muslim person, even more so. When Kimmel makes fun of ‘Mahershala’ and ‘Yulree’ during the Oscars, he is clearly implying that names from other cultures and languages are not ‘normal’. In effect, he marginalises the culturally different people who have these names. In simple terms, it is discriminatory and racist.
Kimmel may have a platform to air these views, but they are not only his. This Othering occurs when actress Uzo Aduba is asked if she has considered changing her name. It occurs when author Lahiri’s kindergarten teacher finds her name Nilanjana Sudeshna too difficult to pronounce, and changes it to Jhumpa instead. It occurs when Mahershala Ali is asked to shorten his name Mahershalalhasbaz, in order to appear on a poster.
People with uncommon non-English names like ours often go through a journey in trying to accept it. We hack at it to make it simpler and more acceptable, even as it means we are hacking at our own identity.
I once went to a house party with friends from my International Journalism course. A white British guy sat in our midst. He asked everyone what their name is and proceeded to ‘whitewash’ each one. In this surreal colonisation of our names, I honestly expected mine to be spared. After all, I have already compromised to accommodate the likes of him. I told him my name is Suri. He wanted to call me Sue. The ensuing silence convinced him otherwise.
The best defense for names like ours comes from Uzo Aduba’s mother. It came when a young Aduba was struggling with her own name. Her mother had said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.” That is all.