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Notes on being suspended from Twitter because of my name

When I was born, my parents named me Ryan Alexander. Both children of Ukrainian immigrants living in Western Canada, they did this because they didn’t want me to be discriminated against — they didn’t want me to have a Ukrainian-sounding name. (They apparently never considered that the Irish were also victims of serious discrimination, an honest mistake.) There was nothing we could do about our last name — Diduck — for which there was really no English spelling, but the idea was that if I was named Ryan (which meant “little king”) and Alexander (the great), nobody would look down on me.

My father was named Taras, after the famous Ukrainian poet, and my mother is called Oryssia (or Iris, as she prefers). When they were growing up in Canada in the 1950s and 1960s, British and French Canadians generally considered Ukrainians second- if not third-class citizens, along with First Nations, Slavs, Russians, Jews, Italians, Asian, Brown and Blacks. My dad’s sister, my aunt, had changed her name in the 70s from Marcia Holowaychuk to Marcie Holloway. She was one of Edmonton’s most successful real-estate agents and she swore that having an Anglicised name helped; no one was going to buy a million-dollar property from someone called Holowaychuk.

Because of my name, I grew up acutely aware that I was not a member of the upper class; we were dominated, not the dominators. And even though I was called Ryan Alexander, which nobody had any trouble with, I was constantly correcting peoples’ pronunciation of my last name. It looks like it should be “Dye Duck”, or perhaps “Dee Duck”. But it’s pronounced “Dee Duke”, or more accurately “Dee Dookh”, with a soft kh at the end. You have to use the phlegmy part of your throat to say it right. It’s not a sound that exists in English. The only way to spell it is in the Cyrillic alphabet: Дідух.

For years, I was embarrassed of my name. I thought of getting rid of it altogether and just being Ryan Alexander. I thought of changing it to something completely different. I considered Alexander Duke, which I still think sounds pretty cool. But more recently, after doing extensive research about the Ukrainian famine-genocide, the Soviet invasion of Ukraine, and my family’s place in all of it, I’ve come to understand that Дідух is not only my name, it’s also my identity. It’s who and what I am. If I deny that, who am I?

A few months ago, in a small act of reclamation, I decided to change my Twitter name to its Cyrillic spelling. Immediately after doing this, my account was suspended. I had to go through Twitter support to verify my identity and unblock my account. It struck me as odd that using a non-English alphabet would be in some way suspicious and I noted it at the time. I wondered if anyone named Smith had ever encountered this problem.

I got my answer last night. Since it’s October, I thought that I might change my handle to something Halloween-themed, as the kids do these days. So, I changed it to “Duck Soup” and then to my standard “Dead Duck”. Without incident, I changed it a few more times, to varying stupid Halloween-y puns, before deciding that no, I wasn’t going to do Halloween this year. My name is my name. I changed it back to Дідух, and once again, Twitter suspended my account.

This time, it was more complicated getting it reinstated. Twitter support wanted my mobile phone number, to which they would send a code via text message. If I entered the code they sent, my account would be reactivated, they said. But the problem is that I don’t have a mobile phone. (At this point, I think it’s just me and Jack White, although I suspect he’s lying.) At any rate, I didn’t feel it was necessary for me to provide a phone number to Twitter; they had only weeks ago disclosed that users’ email addresses and phone numbers were used surreptitiously and without consent to more effectively target ads.

I sent a somewhat terse email to Twitter support accusing them of blatant discrimination, and this morning, I received a reply proclaiming: “We had a look at your account, and it appears that everything is now resolved!” Well, it is, and it isn’t. It is obvious that Twitter’s algorithms for spotting suspicious behaviour are culturally biased. Doubtless, Twitter is currently under pressure to fight Russian and Ukrainian interference in America’s politics. And clearly, a name change to something spelled in Cyrillic is a trigger. Assuming that everyone with a Cyrillic name is a Russian troll sounds a lot like assuming that everyone with a Muslim name is a terrorist.

Twitter is a platform upon which frustrated men can bully and harass women. No problem there. Twitter is a platform upon which people can hurl insults and verbal abuse at anyone they so choose, with total impunity and anonymity, simply for a difference of opinion. That’s okay. Twitter is a platform upon which Donald Trump can amass millions of followers, rise to the highest office of the world’s wealthiest nation, and inflame hatred toward groups of people he considers expendable. This is fine. But you can’t change your name to honour your ancestors without raising algorithmic eyebrows. That’s the truth about this platform.

If only my last name were something like Dorsey.

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