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Decolonising the curriculum, News

What’s in a Name?

At the Dental School we have been working closely with students to understand what Decolonising and Inclusion mean for us. Our research received funding from the Policy Support Fund and Elizabeth Blackwell Institute and ethical approval from the Faculty of Health Research Ethics Committee. Students were involved as paid co-researchers and received training on antiracism and decolonising.

The first part of the research focused on Decolonising the Curriculum and identified key themes of Sense of Belonging, Learning Space, and Teaching Materials, all of which intersect with each other and have cross cutting sub themes. The second part of the research explored wider Intersectional Identities, and further themes of Social Class and Mental Health were identified by students as being areas of exclusion significant to their experiences of the Dental School.

The study took a mixed methods approach with online survey, focus groups, and individual interviews ensuring that anyone who wanted to take part had the opportunity to do so and could remain as anonymous as they wanted. Across the study, there were 103 students and 42 staff engagements from across the School. Data analysis is ongoing.

As Clinical Communication Skills Lead, I teach students how to navigate challenging and conversations. Throughout this research I have reflected on the importance of staff being open to difficult conversations too. The reality is that Institutional and Individual Racism exist. Avoiding conversations will only perpetuate this, not reduce it. My hope is to start conversations that can lead to greater inclusion and psychological safety for all.

The focus of this blog is on names. Names are core to our identity, they are how we know ourselves and are known (Dion 1984). Students of colour repeatedly reported names mispronounced or not used at all, or being called by the name of another student of colour (see quotes below).

vom Bruck and Bodenhorn (2006: 27) argue names signal ‘recognition, rather than the imposition of personhood’, by not using student’s names correctly, staff are not recognising individuals, and instead imposing a sense of otherhood onto non white students, which in turn leads to a low sense of belonging and impacts self esteem, and for some affected their entire experience of their time at the University of Bristol.

Murran, writing about American students describes the importance of names in the educational space,

“the first step in becoming a multicultural and culturally responsive educator is respecting students’ names. When educators mispronounce, Anglicize, or (re)name students of color, they convey a colorblind message to their students that their racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and family and historical backgrounds do not matter in the classroom. This practice frames students of color with non-Eurocentric names as needing to be ‘fixed’ or ‘helping’ them ‘fit in’ through assimilationist practices such as ‘Americanizing’ their names” (Murran, 2018)

The same can be applied to students in the UK, where students are viewed as somehow deficient for having names too cumbersome for staff to take the time to learn. Significantly, it models to students that unusual names need not be bothered with. This has implications for patient care.

It is a fact that we are more likely to remember names that are familiar to us, but names will only become familiar through making conscious effort to learn and use them. Saying ‘I am bad with all names’ only compounds the fact that no effort will be made to learn names despite students raising this as an issue. It may be surprising to learn that misnaming and mispronunciation are racist acts. Mistakes are natural, but when this is ongoing, it is a choice and is recognised as a racist microaggression (Kohli and Solórzano 2012). When sharing this data in the Dental School, I had a member of staff say to me ‘I do this – if I can’t remember a name, or I worry about mispronouncing, I just ask the student ‘what do you think?’ I hadn’t realised till now how this might feel for students to be the only one whose name is not said’. This shows that once conversations start, changes can be made to make spaces more inclusive for everyone.

Over 130 students and staff took part in the Decolonising the Dental Curriculum study, with over 100 students shared their experiences.

I think the most simple thing is just saying people's 
names right. It's happened a number of times now 
over the last four years, I don't mind my name being 
shortened but one of my friends name really isn't 
difficult to pronounce and people just still kind of stick 
to their own way of saying [their] name and at this 
point, [they’re] kind of just like ‘Oh I don't care 
anymore. Why am I going to keep trying when they 
clearly don't want to learn how to say my name’. Then 
you have sort of Western names that are also difficult 
to pronounce… but I noticed more with our names 
people just try and shorten them or sort of anglicise 
them and I feel like, it'll just be nice if people could try 
and say our names correctly to begin with. (BDS 

I think, you know, sort of 
having an emphasis on 
actually pronouncing people's 
names correctly, like asking 
people how they'd like to be 
called. Whether they do want 
their name shortened or not, I 
think it does make a big 
difference. (BDS student)
I received an email about a mask fitting. It wasn’t 
for me. It was someone with a similar name in a 
different year. I knew this student so I forwarded 
the message to [them]. Otherwise [they] would 
have missed their mask fitting. They [staff] did 
email me after the mistake had been pointed out 
to them to apologise and explained that the 
mistake was because our names are similar. Our 
name starts with the same letter, it might look the
same to staff but the names are different and are 
spelt differently. We just have the same initials. I 
don’t think this happens for students who have 
British names and the same initials and are in 
different years. (BDS student)

On clinic one of my group is called Mohammed, the Supervisor looked 
at me and said ‘Are you Mohammed?’ He saw one Brown person and 
assumed I must be Mohammed. The fact that I am clearly a girl but 
he still called me Mohammed was embarrassing because it made 
others laugh. I thought clinicians would know Mohammed is a male 
name. I told Mohammed, and this is a Supervisor that has worked 
with us lots of times. (BDS student)

Seeing all non-white students as interchangeable communicates that non-white students are not important enough to bother learning names of. That, just using one, or even no name when it comes to students of colour, will suffice. This is starkly obvious when every white students name is remembered but not the names of non white students. It has lasting impacts on sense of belonging, wellbeing, and mental health, and models to students they don’t need to learn names of their peers and non-white patients.

People don’t say my name. And it’s something so silly that I didn’t think would ever bother me. But 
people don’t make an effort to even pronounce it right. And I don’t even mind a mispronunciation because I don’t mind correcting it - as long as I 
know it’s my name. But when people want to  shorten it, or if even Supervisors will feel like, 
say, for example -I’m not naming actual people - but say, if it’s like, George, they’ll be like, “Oh, 
George, what do you think of today?” We literally had it right now. “What do you think of 
today, George?” “What do you think of today,  Liam?” And then to me, “And yourself, what did 
you think?” And it’s like, you’ve named every single person and then you just come to the last 
one and…[slilence] (BDS student)

I have been called names that are not my own and are either of 
other ethnic minorities in my year or other hijabis. These could be 
innocent mistakes, but I would just prefer it if staff don't know our names to ask instead of assuming/guessing. (BDS student)
A friend of mine in year 2 attended her Gateway to Patients Ceremony and on 
her official certificate her name was spelt [redacted] instead of [redacted]. I 
have not noticed any spelling mistakes for more complicated non-ethnic 
minority names.
In my case, I emailed to have this fixed, but after, I noticed it was still incorrect 
in several places. It is quite disconcerting as I can understand typos happen, but 
this should not be the case on important documents like these. I feel as though 
it isn't regarded with enough respect, as our names are part of our identity and 
having them spelt wrong not just in one case but quite a few suggests it is not a 
one-off mistake. These are just examples that I know of personally, so I can only 
imagine how many others there might that I am unaware of. (BDS student)

With supervisors we've had 
instances where Supervisors 
have like name dropped people like a Supervisor will be 
annoyed at one person and take 
it out on someone else. (BDS 

There can be serious confidentiality and GDPR issues from not taking the care to ensure the correct person is contacted. Students are happy to repeat how to say their names.

What have students recommended?

  • Just ask us how to say our names
  • Please spell names correctly on important documents
  • Please check emails are going to the right person


Dion, K.L., 1983. Names, identity, and self. Names, 31(4), pp.245-257.
Marrun, N.A., 2018. Culturally responsive teaching across PK-20: Honoring the historical naming practices of students of color. Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education, 17(3), p.4.

Kohli, R. and Solórzano, D.G., 2012. Teachers, please learn our names!: Racial microagressions and the K-12 classroom. Race Ethnicity and Education, 15(4), pp.441-462.

vom Bruck, G. and Bodenhorn, B., 2006. The anthropology of names and naming. American Ethnologist, 35

For more information contact Dr Nilufar Ahmed

1 thought on “What’s in a Name?”

  1. Great piece Nilu.
    I now challenge people on them putting in no effort into recognising my name when they are introduced as a matter of principle now rather than out of anger.
    But i know the feeling when it happens hundreds (literally) of times a day…
    If you can learn to pronounce Dostoyevsky, you can learn Cashain.

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