Hello My Name Is…27 August 2018
CONTENT WARNING: MENTION OF SLAVERY
Shakespeare once said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” Although, he was probably referring to white names because we all know that Rose rolls off the tongue a lot easier than Mishti does.
At the risk of sounding like a cheesy, ethnic Spy Kids extra who only goes by a code-name, Veera isn’t actually my real name. It’s half of a longer, very Indian name that only a handful of people outside my big, brown family know. But, as someone who has more recently started to pride themselves on authenticity and committing to being apologetically herself, I feel it may be a tad hypocritical for me to have kept it a secret for almost 21 years. So, to apply some artistic license to an old saying: you don’t know my name, so here’s my story.
I don’t know why I’ve never felt comfortable sharing my ‘real’ name with anyone outside my family. Maybe it’s seeing the destruction of anything remotely ethic by white tongues who couldn’t care less about correct pronunciation, as long as the desired attention-grabbing effect is produced. If your name is anything darker than the shade of milk, suddenly it becomes something that sits heavy in the mouth.
I would wonder why everyone had no trouble pronouncing the greats, like Tchaikovsky or Mozart, but somehow, when it came to brown names, no one bothered to extend the same care. Instead, we continue to see our names fractured and distorted into something we’ve had to learn to recognise. Listening to the blatant disregard around me when it came to its pronunciation made me clutch my name even tighter. My name is a beautiful thing. It embodies not only one of the strongest women in my family, and but also a prominent symbol of the Hindu faith. It’s not something I want to hear being strangled to death.
The name Veera itself is derived from the Sanskrit word meaning ‘brave’. Personally, I’d like to say that I live up to my name and that it’s one that wholly suits me.
But, I can’t say that that’s the case unless I go on.
Hello, my name is Veeralakshmi Ramayah.
Typing my full name out loud is something I usually reserve for admin forms or other ‘adult’ jobs, so typing it out knowing that it’ll be printed in something I won’t be able to hide before guests come over is somewhat daunting.
Veeralakshmi is an avatar of the goddess Lakshmi, who represents prosperity, light, courage and strength. It seems so odd that I would want to shy away from sharing it, but it’s almost become the ultimate weapon to use against me: something reserved especially for my Mum and Dad during one of their many heated lectures. It’s not something I’m keen to share with say, my entire Facebook friends list, for fear of misappropriation and weak excuses about how it’s “easier just to say Veera”.
Lakshmi also happens to be the name of one of my aunties. She is the embodiment of the values that Goddess Lakshmi represents and, through our lengthy discussions over the past few years, I have learnt so much about her remarkable life, her devotion to our family and her service work. It is both an honour and a privilege to be named after her and to aspire to carry on exhibiting her traits in my everyday life. Her selflessness is unmatched and I can only hope that along with the name, she’s passed that on too.
In today’s climate, stories from people of colour (PoC) about anglicising their names to make them more palatable for wider (read: whiter) consumption are not uncommon. It’s
a way to deal with inherent biases when it comes to CVs, or whenever you aren’t there to personally introduce yourself. When I reflect upon the circumstances that make PoC feel as though erasure, in whatever form that may take, is easier and at times, safer, than being authentic, my heart physically hurts in a way that no other pain can ever quite replicate, tragic breakups and all, included.
In a world that sometimes feels as if it’s coated with a thick layer of glossy acrylic white paint, the fact that many of us don’t feel comfortable enough to retain and claim our names—which often have deep spiritual and cultural connotations—is the best example of how systemic and enduring the effects of internalised racism are.
It seems that as much as social movements are about progression (and I acknowledge, we truly have come such a long way), the reality is that many PoC do not feel safe being themselves. Instead, we resort to a handful of alter-egos, assimilating with popular white culture in terms of the media, food and fashion we consume. Assimilation in itself isn’t the issue here. In fact, I think that it can be a great teacher of whatever new culture anyone finds themselves in. However, a whole myriad of issues tends to seep in when you engage in assimilation to the point of an identity crisis.
Earlier this year, one of my closest friends, a fellow WoC, called me in tears after a party. A white boy had walked up to her and, with the heady musk of VB practically oozing from his pores, had asked her what her “slave name” was. So, when one of your best friends calls you up and is crying because even using an anglicised name isn’t enough to avoid what is best described as “white people nonsense”, it makes you feel as though nothing we do to bolster ourselves against the harsh parameters of the world in which we live is ever enough.
So here I am.
After 21 years of hiding behind the shortened version of a name that represents so much about me and who I am, I’ve decided to remove the plastic sheets and face the fact that even if a bit of that impetuous white paint gets on me, it still won’t be enough to cover all this brown girl magic.