My parents named all six of their children with Igbo names: Ogechi, Chukwuemeka, Eberechi, Chijioke (me), Nkechinyere and Chimezie, all with their unique meanings. My eldest sister, Ogechi, gave me a nickname when I was about 3, so for much of my life, I’ve been known as CJ. Yet only after some conversations with friends and recently deciding to change my Facebook name (CJ Anosike) to my actual name (Chijioke Anosike), have I reflected on four main questions.
1. What is a Name?
To me, a name is many things. It’s primarily a means of identification, for a) the named person and b) others to identify that person by. A name is also an opening into one’s culture, it communicates to others that you have a culture and it is a starting point to further explore that culture. A name gives a sense of belonging to oneself, a constant reminder that you are from a distinct community which transcends both space and time.
Okay, I’m sure you can guess by now I think names are important, especially names which showcase one’s unique culture to this Eurocentric world we live in today.
2. Why do some African parents prefer to give their children Anglo-European first names?
My first instincts lean towards two main reasons. The more innocent reason could be that African parents call their children Anglo-European first names (Jack, Phillip, Ruppert) because their own parents gave them Anglo-European first names. Since behaviours are usually learnt from the home, I can understand if a parent who was given an Anglo-European first name decides to do the same for their children.
However, often I think the second more unfortunate reason usually holds more weight. Through some sort of conditioning, some parents genuinely believe that by giving their African child a “white sounding” name that their life chances and opportunities will be greatly increased.
I say this is the more unfortunate reason because it is a real shame that we live in a world where some parents feel that they must ‘sellout’ and ‘assimilate’ their indigenous cultures to fit the phonetic criteria of the white culture…
Now hold up, I’m not saying that every African parent who has given their children Anglo-European first names have sold out their culture, nor I’m I saying that if you’re part of the African diaspora but do not have an African first name, you are any less African…
I’m only trying to challenge the rationale that allows some parents to feel pressured into giving their child an Anglo-European first name.
To an extent, this Stanford report justifies those parents fears about their children’s life chances and opportunities being restricted by having African sounding first names. Nonetheless, if we continue to give our children white sounding first names purely because we are scared that their future lives may be worse off, then those whites in institutional power who are biased towards names they are unfamiliar with will simply use one of the many other arbitrary classifications to exert their stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination.
I have an Aunty who once seemed happily surprised when I responded “no”, to her asking me if myself or any of my siblings have English first names (It’s not that she suffers from amnesia, its just generally Nigerians have at least one Western name they can choose to be known as). Her child had a Western (actually Hebrew in origin) sounding name, and my Aunty’s rationale for this, in her own words, was for “job applications”.
This rationale, although perfectly logical since the majority of places of employment in the UK are owned by white people with white-sounding names and they will naturally have an unconscious or conscious preference towards names they are more familiar with… but if this is the only or primary reason for naming your child a white sounding first name, then 1) we are in effect condoning the systematic perceived benefits that not having an African name gives you and 2) we are voluntarily assimilating our own individual African cultures to appease others.
3. Why do some African young people prefer to be called an Anglo-European first name (or in my case an abbreviation)?
Waiting for that tense moment when a substitute teacher pauses, awkwardly smiles whilst looking up, then attempts to read your African first name (Chi-jio-ke) from a register…. and before they get to completely obliterate it, I soon learnt to swiftly raise my voice and hand, whilst saying “you can call me CJ Miss”. For anyone that knows this feeling, they should understand why I’ve always used the nickname my eldest sister gave me. I guess difficulty of pronunciation and the length of time trying to correct someone, is why I’ve opted to be known as “CJ”- never because of shame, more because of convenience.
Although not on my birth certificate, CJ is still my name something I personally identify with.
Then why did I change my facebook name from CJ to Chijioke, you may be wondering. I know to some this whole article isn’t that deep and ‘it’s just a name’, but changing my Facebook name helped me rediscover that sense of pride that my name gives me.
My name means “God has my portion” as well as “God creates all”. This couldn’t be further away from the name ‘Adam’ lol (one of the first white people I met in my junior primary school) I ironically gave to another black guy when he asked me for my name after newly joining the junior section of my primary school. I guess I said this name because I was embarrassed that people would struggle to pronounce my actual name, it was a misjudgement, a stage-fright moment which I was quick to rectify later that day.
So being a young person who has had their African first name butchered on numerous occasions, even laughed at, or just overlooked I guess it was the easy choice being known as CJ. I’ve now come to understand that names are universal, personal and are meaningful, people who laugh at them are ignorant of the true qualities of African names, so I guess despite the ‘difficulty’ in pronunciation for people not used to such names, and whatever other reasons we have had for wanting to be called something easier-I’d say take pride in our names because that is what defines us.
4. Does giving your African child (or any other ethnic minority living in the West) an African name benefit or hinder them?
Now for the million naira question, I guess coming from a family whose parents both have Igbo first names, and whose siblings all have Igbo first names- having African first names is the norm, regardless if I’ve distanced myself from this reality in the past.
I think naming your child a first name which is culturally significant to you (whether you’re Yoruba, Igbo, Hindu, Polish, or Shona) is extremely important for all the benefits I earlier discussed. Secondly, if someone does believe a certain name will hinder their child, bigger questions need to be asked as to why this occurs and if feeding into the bias will benefit or hinder that child.
As I said names are universal, so surely no one should be pre-judged, stereotyped or discriminated against because of a name that doesn’t fit the phonetic capacity of someone else…no matter how ‘important’ that person is.
So as an African, of course, I think giving your child an first African name is a benefit. It’s not to say those African parents who haven’t given their children African first names are any less of parents than others, but I do think the ‘rationale’ behind their reasons need to be scrutinised. As an Igbo, just like my parents gave their children Igbo first names, if I have children, I plan to give them Igbo first names.
Still, if I become a parent, my views may change (although I hope they don’t) I just hope that I remember to re-read this article to remind me of why names are so important.
TWN Editor Chijioke Anosike