What's in a name?

Names: we all have them, and they define part of our identity, but there. Aastha Malik explores the impact of ignorance towards pronunciation on people with non-white names.

Aastha Malik
5th November 2020
Last week, David Perdue, a man that has served three years on the Senate with Kamala Harris, chose to get out in front of a crowd and mockingly mispronounce her name. “Ka-mal-a, Comma-la, Ka-Malala-malala?” he said, before dismissing it and moving on in front of a cheering crowd of Trump supporters.

For many non-white watchers, this rang a bell of familiarity. An experience of our everyday lives was unfolding in front of our eyes and in front of an audience of thousands of people. Not even the possible future vice-president of the United States, with her name on a hundred headlines, campaigns, and the ballot was exempt from the common act of name dismissal. A three-syllable name like Kamala being constantly mispronounced by not just Perdue, but Trump and other Fox journalists, depicts a basic lack of respect and a prevalent racist idea that non-white names are not as important to learn and get right.

But there’s more to a name than a mere means of identifying someone – it’s their sense of identity

Before moving to America or even the UK, people often have to consider whitewashing their names. They change the pronunciation of their own names or go by completely different ones, just to avoid the toll of others struggling to say them right. But there’s more to a name than a mere means of identifying someone – it’s their sense of identity, their bond to their culture and ties to their family. Yet for some reason, it’s become more of the norm to have to rework this piece of identity than have others put in the effort to say it right.

As someone with a non-white name, I have had my own fair share of name butchering. I have been called everything from ASDA to asthma (really.) For a lot of us our names become our first sense of who we are and for me, it was just that. My first sense of identity, the first ever thing picked out for me by my parents. My name means ‘faith’ in my language and being away from home, it’s something that ties me to my roots.

What distinguishes most people I have met from Perdue is a simple notion of effort.

While it can be understandably hard to pick up on new pronunciations that you have never used before, what distinguishes most people I have met from Perdue is a simple notion of effort. Trying to get new names right, even if you have to ask a few times, emboldens people to not have to change the most basic way they present themselves to the world. In the words of my favourite comedian, Hasan Minaj - if you can say Timothee Chalamet and Ansel Elgort, you can say any name - you just have to try.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons

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