What’s in a name?

People & Culture

UK New Business Director Kabillan Navaratnarasa discusses how a small action can make a big difference in building an industry that needs to be more inviting of South Asian talent.

I didn’t think much of having two pronunciations of my name; one is how I introduce myself to Tamil people and the other to everyone else. I’m Ku-bill-un to the former, and Ka-bill-an to the latter. It’s almost a reflex, one that’s been drilled in from a young age.

It’s often a running joke that Tamil names are long and difficult to pronounce, so it’s fine if it’s said incorrectly. It’s partly why I’ve learnt to introduce myself as Kabs, to avoid the awkwardness of watching someone struggle and stumble through my name.

One of my first memories of my name being mispronounced was at school, at four years old. A white teacher called out my name during the register using the non-Tamil pronunciation. I clearly remember feeling a sense of powerlessness and confusion. From that moment onwards, I accepted that there would be two ways that my name would be pronounced and that set the precedent for how I’d hear my name within white spaces.

My parents immigrated to the UK in the 80s from Sri Lanka, which was in the midst of civil war, the Tamil population being routinely punished or murdered in a racial genocide. They came to this country with the hope of starting a new life, a safer and more prosperous one, in a country that was put on a pedestal through the levers of white supremacy and colonialism. My parents had always reiterated the idea of being a good immigrant: to study and to have my head down and work. To not draw too much attention in a country where they viewed themselves as second class citizens.

On reflection, this is probably why I didn’t think to correct my teacher on the mispronunciation of my name and why I didn’t at any point following that. It is a way to avoid being difficult and to fit in with the general crowd.

And when it comes to the advertising industry, that crowd is predominantly white and middle class. Role models that look like me or come from similar backgrounds are few and far between. Conformity and cultural assimilation has been part of a survival technique to get to where I am today but it’s come at the cost of white-washing my identity somewhat and hiding those cultural life experiences which I’ve locked away a lot of the time.

While there are really important initiatives to open up the industry to recruit more diversity and people from working class backgrounds, properly pronouncing and spelling names is the most basic courtesy that we should be getting right. South Asian people should feel empowered and unafraid to be their whole selves.

If you’re unsure, just ask them. Change your new starter form to include pronunciations. Take the time to read someone’s email address before typing their name. A small action can make a big difference in building an industry that needs to be more inviting of South Asian talent.

My language is the oldest in the world, my culture is diverse and rich, steeped in history and defiance, in joy and celebration. I understand my name, the way it’s spelt and the way it’s pronounced is an ode to all of that and one that has to be respected and proclaimed proudly.

So, what’s in a name? Everything.

This article was originally published in Campaign Magazine.