If you met someone who introduced himself as Bob Shabanowitz and tried to guess his ethnicity, the chances are that you would conclude that he is Jewish. But there is such a person and he is in fact a Muslim, descended from the Lipka Tatars in the Baltics, one of the Europe’s oldest Muslim communities, and that it is a common Muslim name in his native town as he discovered when he made a visit back there.
The public radio program The World had an interesting program about his experience in growing up in upstate New York as a Muslim with a Jewish name. He said that his family did not publicize their religion and that almost all his boyhood friends were Jewish and he attended their bar mitzvahs though of course he never had one. His family faced anti-Semitic discrimination because of their name and at the same time Muslims felt that he could not be a real Muslim because of his East European roots. Now 66 years old, he lives in rural Pennsylvania now and keeps quiet about his religion and says that members of his motorcycle club, unaware of his religion, will sometimes make anti-Muslim comments to him or in his presence.
In Sri Lanka, one’s name is a very strong indicator of one’s ethnicity and that can create awkwardness for those people who have mixed parentage and adopt their father’s name as is customary. They can experience bigoted comments aimed at their mother’s ancestry, and I have had friends who had this uncomfortable experience.
I went to a high school where we had students of all ethnicities and some years ago someone created a mailing list of many people who were in the same class and were friends. This list was used to share stories and exchange information. But it turned out that one person who would send out emails to all also had carefully created a sub-list of only those with names indicating that they were of the majority Sinhala community and sent them separate emails with racist sentiments against Tamils. Of course, I was unaware of this since I never got those emails since my name is clearly Tamil. But one of the people on the Sinhala sub-list is a friend of mine with strong anti-racist views and he had blasted this guy and told him not to send him any of those emails anymore, and thus revealed to me the guy’s real character.
This shows the danger of making two major errors. One lies in making an assumption about a person’s ethnicity or religion purely on the basis of their name. The other is assuming that just because someone shares your ethnicity, that they share the same prejudices as you.