What’s In A Name?

Originally published in Live Magazine 12/02/2015

http://www.livemaguk.com/cultural-identity/

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Photo by Dennis Morris 

Names can tell you a lot about a person. They can tell you about their heritage, their parents, or the origins of a family. But what they fail to account for is anything about the personality of the person behind it.

In school it was always a question of ‘where you’re really from?’ – over where you felt like you culturally belonged. I’m someone who’s experienced this first hand. When people ask me where I’m from, they always expect to hear the answer: “I’m Eastern European.” And that’s the thing, Wojciechowski, my surname, implies much. But what it doesn’t tell you is anything about how I factor my own ‘belonging’. Whilst everyone else seems to think Poland is a significant part of my cultural heritage – for me it bears no distinction on my identity. A name is just a name; but an identity can be a hybrid of multiple different cultural creations.

Cultural identification is an area of identity politics that’s riddled with problems. As a white, British-born, South-London raised teenager, the issue of identification isn’t so extreme. When it comes to bureaucratic tick boxes I’m your standard ‘White Caucasian male’, but beneath the surface – I find it hard to identify with that as a category. Tick boxes do little to sympathise with the often difficult cultural backgrounds and histories that go with identification. But making a decision to ‘identify’ through a census tick box can be a dramatic process, as I will explain.  

In 2001 – for the first time – the UK and US censuses asked questions about people’s religious beliefs. For many this was too intrusive a move by the Government. In backlash, almost 400,000 respondents stated their religion as ‘Jedi’, in protest of the census questions.

“Identity is something that’s wrapped up within a whole number of different factors.”

The problem with the collection of Government data about beliefs and cultural characteristics is it can have multiple different uses. The danger is that identifying with a certain cultural background can lead to it gaining political weighting. Not only can this weighting be used to inform direct changes to policy, but it also allows for this information to manipulated and misappropriated by politicians and the general public. Minority communities have always had a difficult relationship when it comes to ideas of difference. Data can be manipulated in a number of different manners – with one implication being the subordination of minority communities in modern society. 

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Photo by Neil Kenlock

For sociologist, Stuart Hall, the issue of identity isn’t one with a simple explanation: “When I ask people where they’re from, I expect to be told an extremely long story.”

Identity is something that’s wrapped up within a whole number of different factors – from migration to background, religious beliefs or dress code – identifying as culturally belonging to a certain category is highly problematic.

Next time you ask someone, “Where are you really from?” – think about what you’re saying. Whilst someone might have very visible traits connected with a certain culture – it doesn’t necessarily mean that it embodies any part of their personality. The simple thing is – just because someone has ‘belonging’ to a certain place, it isn’t the same as identifying with it.

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