#MyNameIsNot that difficult

Simamkele Dlakavu wonders if we can build sincere and authentic interpersonal racial relations in SA.

Simamkele Dlakavu wonders if we can build sincere and authentic interpersonal racial relations in SA.

Published Mar 4, 2015


Simamkele Dlakavu calls on white South Africans to at least try to get black South Africans’ names right.

Johannesburg - On Monday, we woke up with a fury of tweets with the hashtag #MyNameIsNot.

The hashtag was started in America by feminists calling out the rampant “catcalling” and street harassment of women. These women boldly proclaimed that #MyNameIsNot “baby”, “sweety”, “honey” or “chocolate”. The hashtag progressed to incorporate people of colour’s experiences in America, with a large number criticising white Americans mispronouncing, shortening or refusing to learn their names. Some of the tweets shared were:

@AnamR_Syed: “....I refuse to allow my name to be altered to ease ‘your difficulty #MyNameIsNot.”

@ayuryonic: “#MyNameIsNot a reason to avoid hiring me, talking to me, treating me with respect.”

South Africans soon joined in, with the likes of poet and activist Lebo Mashile joining in the global online discussion.

A South African woman said something powerful, which speaks to the one-sidedness of the racial reconciliation project in South Africa - luso mnthali @lkmnthali: “If I can say & spell Botha, de Villiers, Bezuidenhout, Breytenbach, Krog & Rautenbach - you can say & spell Mnthali properly #MyNameIsNot.”

I am sure Luso’s point resonates with many black South Africans. It reminded me of encounters that I have had, such as this one:

White lady: “What’s your name?”

Me: “Simamkele.”

White lady: “Do you have a nickname? A shorter name? Your name is hard to pronounce.”

I know for a fact that many black South Africans have had many similar encounters with white South Africans.

Having experienced this for years, to avoid further debates and confrontation with my fellow white South Africans, I just say “Sima”.

I also have an English name, which I, along with other thinkers like Assata Shakur, call my “colonial name” or “slave name”.

This name, which many don’t know is reflected in the public realm through communication with my university, to the bank, even with some of my friends. I’m not interested in the name; in fact, it’s coming off my ID soon. This is for political and ideological reasons.

I remember once for instance a former employer praising my English name. I knew that her highlighting the beauty of my English name was not out of necessarily pure intentions. I knew her intentions to call me by my English name were not solely based on my name being “beautiful”; it was based on the fact that “Simamkele” doesn’t roll as smoothly off her tongue.

White privilege in South Africa allows our names to be silenced, erased and replaced with what others think is best. In this process, my name, Simamkele, turns into “Sima”, turns into “Simz” and then finally “S”.

In South Africa, there is a long history of white people giving Africans English names. This was influenced by British colonial rule and Christian missionary schooling. Our own (Nelson) Rolihlahla Mandela was a part of generations of black people who were given “white” or “English” names. The Nelson Mandela Foundation explains this: “Giving African children English names was a custom among Africans in those days and was influenced by British colonials who could not easily, and often would not, pronounce African names.”

One of the efforts that have come about to challenge this has been by Thandiwe Tshabalala, a graphic designer who created illustrations understanding the meanings behind African language names. It started with her own mother tongue and it was called The ABCs of Xhosa Names. It’s gone on to expand to other African languages like Setswana and Xitsonga.

Tshabalala explains: “Way back, when apartheid was taking place in South Africa, parents used to give their kids English names so that white people wouldn’t have to struggle pronouncing African names. Most people born during apartheid were given names like: Knowledge, Margaret, Mavis (which has negative connotations), Innocentia, Innocent, Jeffrey, Gloria... Eeek! Let me just stop there. However, when black folks got their ‘freedom’ back, they went back to naming their children African/South African names.”

Yet, Tshabalala when I spoke to her about the hashtag, emphasised that the issue goes beyond just white people, and said black people are complicit in the devaluation of African languages and names.

I spoke to some postgraduate white-Afrikaner students in my department at Wits who shared with me that they had at some point (especially in high school) shortened, mispronounced or refused to learn a black person’s name. One raised a really profound point when he emphasised that, especially in public life and corporate South Africa, with an easier black name or a white name “you are going to have far better relations with white people” because a name can be a “form of similarity”.

He mentioned this especially in relation to the black elite and that they thus reproduce the hegemonic white supremacist order of the devaluation of African names.

When I asked why they didn’t make more of an effort to learn black people’s names, one said that “it’s a tricky question to answer... you are not even aware of it, it’s normal”.

His response reminded me of the idea of the “the colonial unconscious”, wherein whites are oblivious to their own privilege and the subtle forms of white supremacy that are violently perpetuated by the existing structure.

I asked, from a politics student perspective, how to solve the problem. Jonathan Paoli said: “Force... We cannot rely on a hippie culture [to solve it], the bad thing is white people are allowed to get away with it. From a small age, [people] need to be forced to learn Zulu [or other African languages].”

He critiqued the multiculturalism and multiracialism concept saying, “It’s too soft [and that] it reproduces the [current racist] reality”.

De Villiers du Toit did not agree with Paoli’s proposal, saying “that’s a serious attempt at constructing culture” and “kids don’t like studying a language they are not interested in”.

Some may not see the idea of not making an effort to learn an African name as racism; however it is. It forms a part of the “casual racism” that globally we have not interrogated enough.

To truly build a non-racial society and a socially connected South Africa, it starts at a basic level, learning another person’s name.

* Simamkele Dlakavu is a 22-year-old story-teller and social activist. She works as a human rights television producer and has worked on shows for eNCA and the BBC. She holds a BA degree in International Relations and Political Studies and Honours in Political Studies from Wits University.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.

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