Mispronouncing Names Is an Attack on One’s Identity
With Vice President Kamala Harris officially in office, you’d think people would finally know how to pronounce her name (it’s “comma-la,” by the way, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor). But of course that’s not the case. Indeed, there are those, like former Georgia Sen. David Perdue, who insist on deliberately mispronouncing it.
This willful act is not only humiliating, but perpetuates white colonialism and allows people of color — especially women — to be pushed into the shadows when in reality they have so much more to offer. A person’s name is sacred and should be treated as such. Unfortunately, mispronouncing names is not uncommon.
Jumana Rahman, a high school senior from Illinois, explains to YR Media how her name often gets butchered both in spelling and pronunciation. For Jumana and others it’s demeaning when names are skewed because oftentimes a person’s name is a reflection of their culture and background. “I personally have an Arabic and Islamic name, which is not necessarily my culture, but it is associated with my religion and my identity. I think when people allow others to butcher their names or people don’t care when they butcher others’ names, it shows that you don’t care about their culture and identity,” she explains.
“I think the genuine pronunciation, spelling, and meaning of a person’s name helps to enrich and honor the origin of their name. People of color have so much to offer just from their names and when they are suppressed by simple ignorance and factors such as white colonialism, it definitely inhibits them from being able to express themselves to their full potential,” Jumana adds.
Similarly, YR Media spoke to Seayoung Yim, an activist from Washington. She mentioned how many people often misspell her last name, too. “It’s Yim, but so many people have printed ‘Kim’ on programs, certificates, emails, etc. I think because Kim is a more common last name (especially for Koreans) and even other Asian Americans get it wrong.”
To help people learn how to pronounce her name, Yim put a pronunciation guide in her email address. “I also try to write the pronunciation on name badges when there are gatherings of groups. I welcome people asking me how to pronounce and most people have done so very respectfully.”
In fact, Yim grew up with a Western/American legal first name that her family gave her at birth to help her fit in at school and because of the large U.S. presence in South Korea, she says. Last year, Yim decided to change her name after seeing others honor their identities more authentically.
So what should folks do when they don’t know how to pronounce a name? Simply ask! “It should be common etiquette to ask how to pronounce it and show you are making an effort to understand the pronunciation of a person’s name. It is okay to not know how to pronounce someone’s name and be wrong, but what is important is to make sure you are not assuming you know what their name is,” Jumana suggests.
When you don’t take the time to correctly pronounce someone’s name, you’re erasing part of their identity. It is also critical to recognize the importance of your own name and not allow people to misuse it at their own convenience. Let us normalize letting others know when they are mispronouncing or misspelling your name since it is a strong part of the identity that deserves to be respected.