If you have a “strange” name like mine, you know the sinking feeling you get whenever a substitute teacher starts taking attendance. You need to know exactly where your name falls in the alphabet so you can jump in and avoid any variation of the following awkward interactions:
- “I’m going to butcher this name…”
- “Sorry, how do you say-“
- “I’ll do my best to say your names”
- A completely wrong pronunciation of your name
Or, worst of all, dead silence as the sub stares at the list and silently begs the class for help with their eyes. After I interject and say my own name, the adult often repeats it back to me and makes an effort to pronounce it correctly. However, I have weird sounding white name, and I have seen plenty of my non-white friends have a different experience with their names.
Many POC in my school change the pronunciation of their name or go by an American-sounding “version” of their name. They introduce themselves with this false name and sometimes, even people they are close with don’t know their real name. In the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americans “refuse to treat foreign names as though they are actually valid names” (Americanah 336). In Americanah, one of the Nigerian characters is named Uju, pronounced ‘oo-joo.’ After she moves to America however, her niece overhears Uju pronouncing her name differently: ‘you-joo.’ When asked about it, Uju responds that “it’s what they call me,” they being Americans (128). It might not sound like a big deal, but ‘you-joo’ is not her name, and names hold a lot of power. Uju was forced to change this part of her identity so it is more convenient to white Americans who can’t be bothered to pronounce her name correctly.
What happens when you call a white guy out for this kind of behavior? LaTora Shae found out recently. Her white coworker decided that he “won’t even try [to pronounce her name]. All of those names sound the same anyway.”
Shae had just gotten promoted and she had to move to a new, primarily, white area in the office; she had no idea she had just sat down next to the “Mayonnaise Monster.” Shae’s new desk had a fancy new name plate, but despite this, the guy introduced himself as Evan, took one look at said name plate and promptly says, “what the f*ck does this say?” After taking pity and sounding out her name (luh-tor-uh), Evan looked confused and asked, “Laquisha?”
That’s when Latora knew she had to give this guy a taste of his own medicine. After Evan laughed in her face, claiming that “You know, those hood black girl names. They all sound the same so I refuse to try,” she kept her cool and simply said, “yeah, I completely get I Todd.”
Now, Tora knew his name was Evan, and Evan knew she knew. But it didn’t stop there. The next six months of this guy’s life were spent dealing with the effects of his racism. In emails, to other coworkers, and to his face, Tora called Evan all of the “whitest white boi names” she could come up with. Other people around the office started catching on, and this guy is clearly pissed off about it. Eventually, Evan goes up to Latora’s desk and gets her attention by pronouncing her name correctly and asking her to stop. She looks him dead in the eye and responds, “You know what Steve? I’ll give it a try. I can’t promise anything. White names don’t come naturally to me.”
Evan here learned his lesson, but there are still so many people like him. People who refuse to pronounce names based simply on the culture they come from.
TLDR; All names should be treated with equal respect, even if you don’t recognize them.