A name is not just a name.

Hi. My name is Tyson. When you first hear that name, does any image come to mind? Does ‘Tyson’ have any specific characteristics?

The brief exchange…

I was in an elevator in my condo the other day and there was a young white woman with her dog and another guy. The dog got close to the guy’s feet to sniff him in a friendly way and she said, “No Tyson, come back here” as she gently yanked his leash. My ears perked. The dog moved back toward her. I noticed this since all my life it’s been rare to hear my name for anyone other than me and in this case, my first time hearing it as a dog’s name.

After the guy exited on his floor, I decided to say hi to her and her dog. I do love dogs (shoutout to Lou). The conversation was like this:

Me: Hi. I heard you say your dog’s name was Tyson. That’s actually my name.
Her: (surprised expression) Oh wow. That’s interesting. You don’t usually think of Tyson as a white name.
Me: (…)
Her: Have a good day. (exits elevator on her floor)
Me: You too.

It was a little startling to hear someone say it so abruptly that my name was not “a white name”. I’m not sure if it was just how she phrased it or more than that. I hadn’t truly thought about how my name may come with racial preconceptions in a very long time. It prompted me to reflect on how my name(s) has defined a lot of my experiences and had an enormous impact on my identity.

Little Tyson in small town Canada…

My hometown is very small-town Ontario, in Canada, basically about 30,000 people surrounded by farmland and some lakefront beach towns. The closest big city is London (no, not that one) of about 400,000 people. When I was a kid in the 80s, it was even whiter than it is now. Most common names of boys in my classes were Mike, Chris, Dave, Jason. I was the one and only Tyson that I knew of the entire time. A look into the popularity of my name (albeit US-centric but probably quite similar for Canada in this case), Tyson achieved a height in popularity around 2010, but when you compare to Mike, for example, that per million doesn’t even come close (Tyson peak: 2010 at 330 per million babies; Michael peak: 1968 at 22,000+ per million babies).

A graph showing the popularity of the name Tyson from 1960s to present day, where mid 70s and 2010 are peaks.A graph showing the popularity of the name Michael between 1800s and now, with peak in the late 60s of 22K per million
Source: https://www.babynamewizard.com/

I used to feel very isolated from popularity or fitting it and desperately wished my name had been something more like those boys names above. I also had two very unusual surnames. During my childhood, my name was Tyson Kammerer, a German tag from my step-father who adopted me when I was quite young. Imagine how often I had to spell that out for everyone: classmates, teachers, doctors, etc., not to mention the jokes made in it being difficult to pronounce (which it really isn’t). Even the ER ER part when spelling aloud had a vaguely Mork & Mindy ‘nanoo nanoo’ sound to it.

Then after my parents separated and divorced when I was in middle school–you know, that already delightfully awkward age when kids start to care more about looks, fitting in, and popularity–when given the chance, I elected to change my surname to my mom’s maiden name, Seburn, basically to avoid any discussion of future name changes should my mom remarry again. But then I was Tyson Seburn, neither name common enough to counter my other differences in my eyes.

But now back to the racialisation of my name from the elevator conversation: there was no internet, so only TV or maybe local newspapers was our exposure to the outside world. And so the only Tyson that anyone seemed to be aware of was Mike Tyson, an American boxer. His is surname and mine a first name, so the comparison always seemed a bit tangential to me, but one which I’d regularly need to explain away. Right up into my 20s when I went to Seoul, upon hearing my name for the first time, people would mime boxing or ear-biting, or at minimum still question whether it was my first name in reality (thank you model, Tyson Beckford, for helping me out with this in the 90s). Incidentally, a quick Google search of my name of Tysons today show quite a lot of few–many white–though I’ve heard of almost none of them.

Surely a lot of folx share this experience, yes?

Still, the rarity of my name continuously showed me ways I wasn’t like other kids. For example, I didn’t have the same easy-access to simple identifiers other friends did like those keychains or mugs you’d get at an amusement park, a pen with your name on it, stickers with your name on it, etc.: that type of socially connecting experience always had to come with a ‘custom-made’ caveat, to which my family didn’t have the money to prioritise for. Of course looking back from an adult lens, it was hardly a huge inconvenience, but as a kid trying to fit in with others, it just contributed to feeling strange. When you were already a small child in stature, a shy kid, a boy who preferred the way girls interacted with each other than the way boys did (or were expected to), a boy who loved gymnastics not football, a family who couldn’t afford designer clothes, and ultimately a gay boy, anything extra that highlighted the divide between you and the popular kids added to the othering. My name was just one more thing.

But now this quick elevator exchange makes me wonder how much of my experiences with my name as a kid, a young adult, and even now, were/are connected to the additional subtext of preconceived notions of race. To others, was me behind the name even more surprising? Was this disconnect between expectation and reality amplified because of this?

An excerpt from How to Write Inclusive Materials p.62 on 'a name is not just a name' in ELT materials
Excerpt from Seburn (2021, p.62)

Names can be loaded…

Names bring with them a set of preconceived notions of all sorts of things: age, race, religion, popularity, style, cultural beliefs, language proficiency, and ability to “fit it”, to name a few off the top of my head. Just look around ELT: learners adopting or being given ‘English’ names, employer discrimination of racialised applicant names, characters in our materials whose names rarely centre L1 (see p.62-65 for a discussion on this aspect specifically). Aside: have you seen Linkedin’s name pronunciation feature? Take a look around mine and find it! Applause to them.

I empathise with anyone who relates to how I felt growing up. I also recognise that there are situations where you may currently feel your name contributes to injustices towards you. It is not you or your name, however, that have the problem or the responsibility to fix it; it is them. Your power is in how you feel about yourself.

A few poignant excerpts about names

Some students I interviewed had simply been given an English name whether they wanted one or not. Some had kept these and others had substituted them for another name with which they felt they had more affinity. Most students said that they were told by their teachers that they needed an English name and were allowed to choose their own name. The ways in which this choice is instigated reflects, to use Cummins’ (1996) terms, either coercive or collaborative relations of power; the one is disempowering the other empowering, and they can both impact significantly on a student’s sense of identity (p.96).

Edwards, R. 2006. What’s in a name? Chinese learners and the practice of adopting ‘English’ names. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 19:1, p. 90-103, 10.1080/07908310608668756

My name is a good example – often mispronounced by people, who simply call me a name that they know, so I become Selina, Sabrina, Sarita, Karina! In my first year at secondary school, it took one teacher forever to get the hang of my name… . She would then proceed to say my name as if I was a Russian Czarina and stress the first syllable, instead of the second. I consequently felt that it was not important for that teacher to bother learning how to say my name, or even remembering that my surname looked like Siobhan, but wasn’t. To her, I was therefore not a significant person in that class (Zarina Subhan’s account, p. 63).

Seburn, T. 2021. How to write inclusive materials. ELT Teacher 2 Writer, http://bit.ly/howtoinclusive

What the findings [that applicants with Asian-names are less likely to receive interview call backs than Anglo-Canadian names] suggest overall is that discrimination represents the activities of employers who in some ways are themselves disadvantaged. They are disadvantaged in not having at their disposal the knowledge-base and resources to fully appreciate the value of applicants whose names and in some instances qualifications may seem strange. They lack the experience to fully tap more diverse segments of the workforce (p.18).

Banerjee, R., Reitz, J. G., and Oreopoulous, P. 2017. Do large employers treat racial minorities more fairly? A new analysis of Canadian field experiment data. The University of Toronto, https://hireimmigrants.ca/wp-content/uploads/Final-Report-Which-employers-discriminate-Banerjee-Reitz-Oreopoulos-January-25-2017.pdf

What’s your name? It’s a pleasure to meet you.

I’ve grown to absolutely adore ♥️ and embrace 👐 the uniqueness of my name (NB: My father’s name, Brian, is my middle name, which is a bit less rare). I love the fact that there isn’t another Tyson Seburn out there that Google could confuse me with. I love that my name contributes to my identity now more than ever. It is who I am. We am who I are.

How has your name contributed to your identity and/or impacted your experiences?

Two men, one white, one brown, gazing at each other about to kiss; the image style is graphic novel of the 50s

What is The Path? As I wrote the book, How to Write Inclusive Materials (2021), much of what I read and whom I listened to prompted reflection on why I am now here and how I got to a place where writing it made sense to me. This space will partly describe these things. In doing so, it may complement some points I make in the book, provide extra resources, and hopefully lead to new belonging, collaborative projects (one involving these characters here).

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Xavier
Xavier
11 months ago

Hi Tyson – Thanks for this interesting read. I can relate to a lot of it actually too. My name was popularised by a Cabbage Patch Kid toy in the 80s (remember them?), but before that, I often got the confused looks of how you’d pronounce a name that starts with X. Is it EX? Z? S? Then there was the ending of my name. Is it ER or AY in a sort of French version? I generally go by “Zav” now to everyone who knows me. Some of my students have a bit of a hard time with it, but it’s no different than how I don’t always say theirs perfectly either. I think we all get by and learn who we are to others, when the intention to try is there.

kucaninerna
11 months ago

This posting really resonated with me as I also have had quiet the journey with my first name — often being called “Irma, Edna or Ema”. I also wanted to share this spoken word piece with you as it is relevant to the topic, and I think you will appreciate it.

https://fb.watch/6X8Bx0DklI/

Belice Nordstrom
Belice Nordstrom
11 months ago

Names do have a lot of connotation, don’t they? You make a good point about learners. I’ve often tried to encourage mine to use whatever name they like, including their own. I know they can be discriminated against when applying for work. We need to empower them and educate others.