Name change and destigmatization among Middle Eastern immigrants in Sweden
When Tarik Hasan received a notification from his local post office in Ha¨rryda, a small community east of Gothenburg in Sweden, that he had a package to pick up, he got an unpleasant surprise. A post office employee had typed ‘Blatte’ (a term generally used in a degrading manner about dark-featured individuals) on the address line next to his surname. Shocked by the incident, he reported it to the Ombudsman against Discrimination (a government agency), which filed a lawsuit against the post office. Interviewed by a daily newspaper, Hasan said that he could forget the incident if the person
who insulted him apologized. Lacking any apology, he hoped that the lawsuit would prevent similar things happening to other people. Executives at the post office announced that they deeply regretted the incident and that they had taken steps to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future (Sta˚hl 2009). This incident can be analysed by drawing on research emerging from
the growing field of research that focuses on ordinary people’s varying responses to racism, stigma and discrimination in everyday life (as opposed to the responses of the intellectual elite or social movement activists) (Essed 1991; Feagin 1991; Lamont, Morning and Mooney 2002; Lamont and Fleming 2005; and the contributions of this special issue). Most studies within this tradition focus on individual-level responses that challenge racism and stigma by emphasizing ethnic or racial identity or by contesting the meanings of the stereotypes associated with ethnic or racial group membership. The present study adds to this field by investigating immigrant name change, a strategy mostly associated with cultural assimilation, from a ‘responses to racism’ perspective drawing on stigma (Goffman 1963) and destigmatization theory (Lamont 2009). I approach this issue by building on Arai and Skogman-Thoursie
(2009). They compared the annual income of immigrants who changed their Asian, African or Slavic surname to a more Swedish-sounding or ‘neutral’ surname in the 1990s with immigrants with similar characteristics who had not changed their surname. They found more positive earnings progressions for the name changers and argued that the name change must be a response to discrimination. However, the results triggered new questions about what happens at the individual level. How can name changes result in earnings increases? Are ethnic boundaries weak and negotiable, enabling assimilation? Stated differently, are the name changes successful passing strategies? I approach these questions by drawing on interviews with a subset of Middle Eastern individuals from the same data set used in Arai and SkogmanThoursie’s study. Linking their macro-level findings with an analysis of individual-level accounts of name changes, I probe the motives for name change and ask how the interviewees perceived reactions to this step. I argue that immigrant name change, a strategy typically associated with cultural assimilation, may be better understood as a destigmatization strategy characterized as pragmatic assimilation. The respondents changed their names to achieve social recognition (i.e. to be recognized by others as equal human beings), as well as to avoid discrimination in the labour market. Through passing (as either Swedish or non-Middle Eastern), immigrants retained the benefits of their original ethnic identity in their private life while acquiring the benefits of easier public interactions outside the ethnic group.
Signalling attachment to the Swedish culture is also perceived to result in assimilation rewards. This study also illustrates the role of institutional enabling in the
framing of destigmatization strategies. More specifically, it shows how the legal context of name change both elicits and structures immigrant name change. The finding that name change is a case of pragmatic transformation
resonates with Todd’s (2005) discussion on the privatization and adaptation of collective identity in response to in-group change in social status. It also extends this discussion to the case of immigrant incorporation and displays how institutional enabling plays a key role in the shaping of destigmatization strategies. It speaks to the immigrant incorporation literature, which deals with the various ways in which immigrants incorporate into a new society (e.g. Conzen 1991; Portes and Zhou 1993; Alba and Nee 1997; Modood 2005). It also resonates with studies of stigmatized minorities in other national contexts where assimilation strategies do not always work or are even inconceivable because of the rigid and impermeable nature of ethnic boundaries (cf. the case of Muslim citizens in Israel analysed by Mizrachi and Herzog 2011). I begin with a brief socio-historical account of the Middle Eastern
immigrant group in Sweden. Next, I outline the theoretical framework. This section is followed by an account of the name-changing process and methodology. Thereafter, I present the findings and reflect upon them in the concluding discussion.