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Nov 22 2013

Yes, I’ve experienced racism – why I’m not (always) the white Englishman I’m taken for

I’ve made several new discoveries of late. One of them is The Failed Gael, Dòmhnall Iain MacDonald’s excellent blog on Gaelic identity, atheism, social change and Scottish nationalism. (He runs, as it happens, the same godless group at Oxford University that I did several years back.)

I’d vote for independence in a heartbeat were I a Scot. As it is, I dread votes for it tightening the Tory party’s grip on parliament. This is, I’m aware, an attitude of quintessential chauvinism, making Scotland as it does a convenient electoral prop for left wing Englanders. My country practised empire in miniature before its ships had sailed, and a twee, home-baked colonialism survives in its treatment of the Celtic nations. I know that while I hope I’m an exception, I sometimes fail to be. (It was only months ago I learnt, to great but well-deserved discomfort, the effect of calling Ireland part of the British Isles.) In my mockery at every turn of U.S. politics, insistence commas stay outside of speech marks, fetish for shan’t and ought and cynicism in the face of wonder, I’m every inch the tea-sipping white Englishman – except that at times, and in many people’s eyes throughout my life, I’m not.

In a post which made me gasp in recognition, Dòmhnall Iain writes…

Always and without question, when I email someone I don’t know and sign my name off as:

“Many thanks and kind regards,

Dòmhnall Iain MacDonald”

They reply with:

“Dear Iain”.

I find this behaviour bizarre. Whether consciously or unconsciously, people choose to ignore the first part of my double-barrelled name. Do their eyes skirt over the exotically spelled part of my name, drawn to the more familiar, Anglo-Saxon-looking Iain? Do they deliberately choose not to retype a name which is an aberration to the rules of English spelling? Does only the English-like (i.e. Biblical!) part of my name count as proper?

One would have thought that it was common courtesy when corresponding formally with someone to address them by the name they themselves use. Dòmhnall Iain stands there, clear as the light of day, in both my actual email address and the name I sign my emails off with. It is not for lack of information my correspondents do not use it.

The familiarity was striking. Cultural Anglo-Saxon that I might seem, my actual ethnicity is Romany on my mother’s side, Lithuanian on my father’s. Where some aspire to make a name for themselves, I managed it at seventeen, changing mine my deed poll to the one you know; the name conferred on me at birth, surviving only in its first four letters, was Alexander Zudys.

I hate, and hated, everything about this name. From its putrid sing-song rhythm, emphasised by the alliterating ‘x’ and ‘Z’, to the novelty initials, every letter radiated pretension. I’m told my father, also an ‘AZ’, wished to name me wholly after himself (a fate, thank fuck, averted by my mother, who herself was coaxed fortuitously away from giving me the forename Derwent) – I’ve often imagined the ‘A’ was his insistence, bestowing on his son a fittingly grandiose set of initials. Certainly, I owe to him most of my loathing for the untrimmed ‘Alexander’. In his and his female partner’s voices when addressing me, the long second ‘a’ mocked by my northern hometown’s other children was drawn out to full potential, a drawling Alexahhhnder, and my every complaint about it drew reminders from him of its meaning – ‘benefactor’, as with proud pomposity he put it, ‘of mankind’. I wanted to throw up.

The surname though, his and his own, immigrant father’s, what what I longed from infancy to cast away. I did so ultimately for many reasons, connection with him being one of them. (If this smacks of teen rebellion, so should the lawyer’s letter two years earlier which scoured him from my life.) I’d lived through less than happy times with it, additionally, and a new name seemed a kind of second baptism or promise of emancipation, but the primary reasons were mundane. I didn’t want to be the last name in the phone book, rung occasionally in the small hours and so informed by drunks, the person at the back of every queue by surname. I simply didn’t want such an odd name – nor one, specifically, which like Dòmhnall Iain’s, people had a contrived tendency to get wrong.

It never mattered how clearly I spelt out the syncopated Z-U-D-Y-S. It never mattered how much pain I took to say my name so people heard, or how often I corrected them. (Front-stressed, for your reference; ‘Zu’ as in ‘Zulu’, ‘dys’ as in ‘dysfunctional’.) The population of my small, parochial thwaite simply refused to say or spell it right. To this day, my mother is known locally as MrsZudy - rhyming with Judy, thus wrong on both counts – and well into my teenage years, it was far from unusual to receive certificates or letters listing Zudy’s as my surname. Something, I know not what, about that ‘s’ – unlike, curiously, the one in Harris, Jones or Stevens – was just too much to handle. The only folk who could cope with it were those who added it to Zudy-as-in-Judy when they spoke, pronouncing my surname’s second syllable ‘dies’ as in ‘diesel’.

I’m fairly sure that in the time I went by it, I heard every mispronunciation possible, including that of Mrs Haslam, my eleven-year-old class’s rotund, rodent-like teacher who seemed to get lost after the first two letters and referred to me persistently as Alex Zoos. Since another horrid feature of my name was that shortening the first half in this way required a stop between the ‘x’ and ‘Z’ – impossible to say clearly, like Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Don’t you love farce‘, without pausing awkwardly in between words – her actual utterance of ‘Alex Zudys’ made my surname into ‘Ooze’.

It mattered nothing what I did. I might have branded the words Zu as in Zulu, dys as in dysfunctional across my face, spelt out my name across the sky in firework-text phonetics or mimed Z-U-D-Y-S in the style of the Village People: no one, no matter how much I corrected them, appeared to get it. As in Dòmhnall Iain’s case, it wasn’t for want of help – people misspelt my name even with written versions straight in front of them, misspoke it even when I’d just introduced myself. Nor was it hard on any clear linguistic level, a name of five letters and two syllables like Tyler, Tyson or Terry, to look only to ‘T’. My grandfather, as I only recently discovered, even tweaked it for Anglo-Saxon speech on fleeing Stalinism: the traditional spelling is Žudys, its ‘Ž’ pronounced the same way as the ‘s’ in ‘treasure’.

It’s only lately I’ve questioned my name’s connection with how I looked, both calling cards of my ethnicity, especially when viewed together. Though I’m almost always read as white by those who know or read me, or have otherwise been introduced to me by (current) name, it’s not uncommon – particularly when my hair is its natural dark brown, grown coiling out in all directions, my beard unkempt and my dress informal – for strangers asking the time to preface their questions with ‘…you do speak English, don’t you?’

I look, at these moments, exactly like someone of equal parts eastern European and Romany descent might be assumed to look. ‘You’re not all English, are you?’ someone asked me when I was eighteen, staring at (rather than into) my face shortly after meeting me. A classmate a year or two before phrased the query with more honesty:

‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but… you’ve got quite dark skin. Where does that come from?’

Most frequently in the hair-explosion that assailed me mid-puberty, I’ve often been imagined to be Jewish, having as I do a nose not totally unlike the prostheses of actors playing usurers in Shakespeare’s London. (More awkward Grindr conversations have begun with people asking if my glasses came attached.) Between the rough ages of fourteen and sixteen, a range of classmates – usually those sticking sharp things into my back during maths lessons – addressed me principally as ‘Jew’, prefaced with ‘dirty’ or suffixed with ‘boy’ at times, graffitiing these phrases onto exercise books, bag and personal effects of mine. I see now that the ‘Gypsy kid’ name-calling I’d had earlier, while actually accurate (at least more so), was of a piece both with these incidents and with my being determinedly misspelt and mispronounced, efforts to contextualise my foreignness: my skin, hair, nose and name specifically, beside the stated fact itself of the descent these symptomised, all of them raced.

Since adopting a more anglophonic name, if in fact (ironically) a Hebrew one, I seem much whiter. Introduced by it, I’m no longer asked why I look dark, where I’m from or my Englishness’s true extent, and the strangers who assume me to be foreign on scruffy days are the only ones in whose eyes I don’t pass. Those encounters make me wonder, likewise, if my name would have been better apprehended in my teenage years had I looked different. Being read as white British most of the time, to use the phrasing of the UK census, confers inordinate amounts of privilege; I’m aware that however I present myself, I’m unlikely to lose out on much of it. That said, and while I won’t reclaim my old name any time soon, I find myself wanting lately to recover some of my discarded foreignness.

What box in the census am I to tick, anyway? It’s true both my parents and I were born in Britain, and are white enough to be described that way by default – but not that we’re white enough, at least in my case until recently, for how we look not to need explaining, for our Britishness to go unquestioned or for strangers to assume consistently that we speak English. When I hear the far-right speaking of ‘indigenous’ Britons, I want to disclose I’m not part of this group – certainly, that I’m not the Anglo-Saxon I’m taken for nowadays. When I see the likes of Pat Condell smear eastern European migrants as scroungers, I want to say that this is personal, because it is: I am, despite my Oxbridge vowels and addiction to Earl Grey, the son of immigrants and travellers. I won’t allow this to be buried – either with an ‘s’ or ‘c’, I won’t let it remain erased.

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  1. 1
    Stephanie Zvan

    What a difference a choice makes, though it doesn’t make all or even the most important difference in how our last names are treated. I enjoy being the odd one out, the last on the list. I’m amused by the misspellings and mispronunciations. But I have my tiny wee nosy and blondish hair to mark me as acceptable, and when people say my name wrong, it’s because they’re trying to honor its “foreign” nature, not deny it. And those differences are all the difference in the world.

  2. 2
    Pen

    My experience of northern Britain as a teenager was that it was profoundly xenophobic and yeah, I got all that dark hair, olive skin shit as well. I was demonstrably a foreigner in every respect (in reality, my status is pretty ambiguous). I don’t think things have changed much in some areas, though my daughter is in a class where there’s 19 nationalities and 17 languages and has experienced no shit at all and she’s even more ambiguous (ambivalent?) than I am. Having said that, we deliberately chose the most diverse situation we could get our hands on, on purpose so that she wouldn’t have to go through what I went through.

  3. 3
    Crimbly

    Hmmm, if I was faced by a name like Dòmhnall Iain’s MacDonald name, I might be a bit baffled.

    1. Is it Dòmhnall Iain, then MacDonald? Or is it Dòmhnall, then Iain MacDonald as a surname? Dear Mr Iain MacDonald, or Dear Mr MacDonald? Dear Dòmhnall MacDonald?
    2. Is Dòmhnall a gaelic honorific people sometimes use, like, I dunno, Laird John Smith? Could it be gaelic for Doctor (I know he points out that it isn’t a title, but not everyone has a gaelic/english dictionary or a convenient blog post to fall back on)?
    3. How in the world do I reproduce “ò” on my keyboard (this is coming from someone who knows all the codes for German umlauts)?
    4. Perhaps he likes to sign formal letters as Dòmhnall Iain, but has included Iain so that I know that he prefers to be called this?

    Of course, all that can be avoided by copy & pasting, but then your letter has all the charm of a mass mailing: “Dear Mr John Smith – Tesco’s is having a sale and we would like YOU to be part of it!”

    Thing is, when I come across a tricky name that I am pressed for time to address, I will simply take the path of least resistance and call you Iain. I’ve lived in Scotland almost all my life and, sorry, I would be hard pressed to know how to pronounce Dòmhnall.

  4. 4
    voidhawk

    Ah, the joys of having an unusual name. While my first is common as dirt, my second name is always a source of bewilderment to people, being Irish in origin. I’ve taken to simply spelling my name before I tell them what it is on the phone, as in:

    “Hello, yes, this is Mr Chris G-a…”

    I’m always tempted to answer the phone as a character in Dirk Gently did:

    “My name is Kate Schechter. Two ‘c’s, two ‘h’s, two ‘e’s, and also a ‘t’, an ‘r’, and an ‘s’. Provided they’re all there the bank won’t be fussy about the order they come in. They never seem to know themselves.”

    I quite like all the different permutations that people incorrectly guess my name as.

  5. 5
    timgueguen

    In meatspace I can’t be mistaken as anything but white, but there have been a couple of times online where my Breton last name has led someone to think I’m Chinese or Vietnamese. I got accused of being Jewish by online bigots back in my Usenet days, but I doubt my name had anything to do with that, just my opposing their crap.

    The second e often gets left out. My mom gets occasional mail addressed to Mrs. Gue Guen. Then again my dad sometimes gets mail addressed to Louise Gueguen. Go figure.

  6. 6
    Dunc

    As for Scottish independence, don’t worry – the influence of Scotland on the composition of the UK parliament is marginal at best: http://wingsoverscotland.com/why-labour-doesnt-need-scotland/. That’s one of the reasons we want independence in the first place.

  7. 7
    rilian

    I thought the complaint was going to be that they called hir by first name rather than last name. I was shocked by the truth. I had interpreted Dòmhnall as a title without even thinking about it. I guess it reminded me of don? I don’t know. Isn’t there also such a word in Russian?

  8. 8
    Michael Brew

    Funny thing is people misspell my last name all the time. I mean, look at it, it’s in the dictionary. Still, I get people wanting to spell it Brü or Brau or Brue. Why do people want to make my name more complicated? I’m pretty Nordic looking, though I have been mistaken for half Jewish before, I guess (well, I might have some Jewish ancestry somewhere as my dad’s side of the family mixed pretty thoroughly with the various people of Europe). I guess the English language, in particular, just ends up being so eclectic, itself, that no one ever really knows what to do with a name that’s not ridiculously common.

  9. 9
    Mara

    ::sigh:: Names. I have no idea why nobody can pronounce my name. And yet invariably, I’ll introduce myself and a few moments later, they’ll say it wrong.

    It’s Mara as in Sara. Or marathon. Or maraschino cherry. But people can’t say that. And as for spelling, well, people just assume I must have left out a letter or something, so I get Mary, Marla, Marsha, Maria…at this point I answer to almost anything that starts with M.

    My last name (which is made up of two extremely common words put together in an unusual way) also gets some weird variants.

    BTW, I look white. My family is a couple generations away from Eastern European Jews. I guess I’m white?

  10. 10
    Nick Gotts

    My ancestry is monotonously English at least 4 generations back, and my surname goes back to the 14th century in north Norfolk (admittedly with an “e” before the “s”), but I still have the same trouble getting people to use it: Gott, Goff, Gates, Scott, Gotz, Grotts, even, FFS, Gottf! When I moved to north-east Scotland 15 years ago, I found the local pronunciation of my name was something like “Knock Goats”, which I used as an online nym for some time.

    Alex, I don’t think you need worry about the independence referendum – I’d be astonished if all the polls over the last several years turn out to be wrong. I’ll be voting “Yes” myself, but unless and until the UK votes to leave the EU, I don’t think Scotland will vote to leave the UK.

  1. 11
    “Anti-Gaelic Racism” doesn’t exist… | The Failed Gael

    […] ‘Why can’t people just call me by my name?’ as a hook for his own post over at Godlessness in Theory about the racism he suffered as a result of being half-Romany, half-Lithuanian. Alex’s post […]

  2. 12
    Chapter 5: Friends with Benefits » Godlessness in Theory

    […] it, with clothes that didn’t fit and a nasal voice, I’d inherited my parents’ foreign name and home counties accent, sounding unlike almost anybody else. (As soon as I found out it made me […]

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