'I'm Bilal, so please don't call me Billy'

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Bilal Harry Khan

Podcaster Bilal Harry Khan discusses the challenges of growing up with his name in the UK and makes a plea for people to try harder with names they are not familiar with.

When I was nine years old my mum took me out shopping. We ended up in a small book shop in Shepherd's Bush Market, in west London. The shop was owned by an old Rastafarian man. He came up to me and said, "What's your name?"

I promptly replied, "I don't talk to strangers."

But then my mum approached us. It felt safe, so I said, "My name is Bilal."

The man said, "That's a very strong name. Do you know about the famous Bilal?"

I said, "No."

He told me. Of Ethiopian descent, Bilal ibn Rabah was born a slave in Mecca in 580 AD. He went on to become a trusted disciple and companion of the Prophet Mohammad.

I thought, "Wow, that's a cool story."

The Rastafarian man went on to tell me about Bilal's beautiful voice and how he was chosen by the prophet himself to lead one of the first calls to prayer.

"Can you sing?" the Rastafarian man asked me.

"Er, no," I replied awkwardly, hoping he wouldn't make me.

But inside I was instantly proud. I felt finally proud that I could own my name. And embrace it. If my name came with such a strong history, I thought, then I was no longer going to shy away from it.

Image caption,
Bilal Harry Khan with his parents

I was born in north-west London in the 1990s and grew up my whole life in Neasden. My mum is Jamaican of mixed East Asian and black Caribbean heritage, and my dad is Kenyan of South Asian heritage. Although he was born in East Africa, his family is from a part of Kashmir that is now Pakistan.

I guess I'm not your conventional mixed-race Brit.

Both my parents emigrated to England when they were teenagers and met in school.

My parents did a great job at showing me both sides of my culture, but in terms of the food I ate and the music I listened to, I had a stronger affinity and connection to my Jamaican side than my South Asian side.

Neasden is an ethnically mixed area in North London, and I didn't grow up around many white people. But most of my teachers at school were white and they struggled with my name. Some would outright butcher it.

I remember being annoyed that one teacher would call me Bee-laarl. I would think, "That's not my name. That's not how you pronounce it." I couldn't understand why he couldn't pronounce a name like Bilal.

At the age of about eight I remember sitting down with my nan and my cousin. I told them that I was very upset about my name. I told them that I wanted an easier name so that I could navigate life without constantly having to explain myself. I wanted an English name. I wanted the name David.

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There was no particular reason why I chose the name David, I just thought it was an easy name to grasp - a nice, simple, Biblical name. But I soon started having doubts.

My family called me "B". So changing my name to David wouldn't make sense. I decided that maybe I needed an easy white person name that started with the letter B. I briefly toyed with "Ben". But, no. I didn't want to be a Ben. I didn't feel like a Ben.

There's another thing with the name Bilal. It's a Muslim name, from my father's Kashmiri ancestry. But I'd been brought up as a Christian. So I got a lot of questions from parts of the Caribbean church community.

"Where is your name really from?"

"How did you get a name like that?"

"Why would your parents call you that?"

"Isn't that a Muslim name?"

The questions were, and are, constant. It's tiring.

It felt like I was having to explain my back story all the time - I couldn't just be. That's a lot for a young boy in primary school. If you're called David or Ben in this country you don't have the burden of constant explanation.

But once I had been told the origin of my name by the Rastafarian man in Shepherd's Bush, I stopped wanting an English name.

Now it's other people who seem to wish I had a name that was more like theirs.

After university I started doing workshops and talks on improving diversity at schools.

Oddly, even at these events sometimes seemed to struggle with my name, accidentally or on purpose. At diversity seminars.

Recently I was asked to give a talk to students at a mostly white school. I'd been in back-and-forth email contact with one of the teachers for ages. My full name, Bilal Harry Khan, comes up in email communication. I'd signed off all our emails as Bilal and introduced myself to him that way too. He had been addressing me as Bilal in these emails the entire time. But as he got up to introduce me to a whole assembly hall of teachers and students, he suddenly said, "Everyone, this is Harry."

I sat there in the front of the room, looking at him thinking, "What a mug!"

So I got up to talk and I said: "Hi everyone, I'm Bilal."

The room looked from me to him in confused silence. I started talking.

Over the Bridge

  • Bilal Harry Khan (right), a diversity facilitator, is one of the presenters of the Over The Bridge podcast
  • The four of them, all black or mixed-race, met while studying at Cambridge University
  • In the podcast they talk about life, diversity and challenges faced after graduation
  • Listen to Stormzy on Over The Bridge, explaining why he set up a scholarship for black students at Cambridge

Afterwards, the teacher came up to me and said, "I'm sorry about that, I just knew they wouldn't understand. I just knew it would be difficult for them."

And I thought: "No, it wasn't difficult for the students. Many of them came up to me after the the talk and said my name perfectly. It was difficult for you."

Things do appear to be changing. If you look at the list of popular baby names in the UK, in 2017 Muhammad and Mateo were in the top 50 for boys, and Aaliyah and Luna were in the top 50 for girls.

So hopefully more people are getting used to those names. But right now it feels as though some people are still trying to change my name to something they are comfortable with.

Nicknames annoy me particularly. I can't stand being called Bill or Billy by people I barely know. (It makes me think of Billy Mitchell from Eastenders.)

It may seem minor, but I'm not here to make your life easier for you. You should learn how to pronounce the name I've just told you is mine. You're picking a name that is closer to home for you, but not closer to home for me.

Children in the UK should be able to grow up loving and being proud of their names. You can play a part in that by learning to pronounce them properly.

It not that hard. If you can say "Tchaikovsky", you can pronounce our names.

As told to @meghamohan

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