When you are born, a name is assigned — often carrying the culture and heritage passed down to you from your family.
Vice President Kamala Harris (pronounced “comma-la”) is a prime example of using names as a form of racism that attacks people of color for their cultural identity. During a Republican rally in Georgia last October, Sen. David Perdue deliberately mispronounced Harris’ first name as he primed the crowd for former President Donald Trump during his reelection campaign.
“Ka-MAL-a, Ka-MAL-a or Kamala, Kamala, Ka-mala, -mala, -mala, I don’t know, whatever,” Perdue said as he purposefully mocked Harris and her culture.
In a statement to CNN, a spokesperson for Perdue’s campaign attempted to defend the senator’s actions by saying he “simply mispronounced” her name. Perdue worked alongside Harris on the Senate Budget Committee for several years, so this was not his first attempt at pronouncing her name, and dismissing it as a simple mispronunciation is disrespectful and insulting.
People changing their name to fit in is commonplace across the United States. Research from Stanford University and the University of Toronto showed that Asian and Black job applicants were changing their names on resumes to mask indications of their race. Researchers found those who altered their names received double the callbacks for interviews than those who did not.
This unfortunate statistic is proof that people of color feel pressured to hide their cultural identity because they feel it guarantees a viable path toward financial security and success. It sends a subliminal message that their cultural identity is not accepted and should be hidden in a workforce that favors white-sounding names. It reveals microaggressions that minorities endure in American society, which have proven to come at the expense of their mental health.
Many people of color have anglicized their name in professional or social settings in order to make it easier for others to pronounce. People who alter their name, or adopt a new ‘Anglo’ name altogether, tend to have lower self-esteem, which can lead to deteriorating health and invalidation, according to the University of Toronto study. It also showed that fear and anxiety soars in classroom settings when their name is called. Being forced into the spotlight and feeling the need to continuously correct people causes students to abstain from raising their hands and avoid embarrassment.
Furthermore, asking people for a nickname has the opposite effect and can cause some to perceive themselves as an inconvenience in society’s dominant culture. Forcing a nickname on someone or anglicizing their name should be entirely avoided as it takes away the individual’s choice.
In an email to CNN, Rita Kohli, an associate professor of education at UC Riverside, said that changing the names of people is the product of American history when dominant groups forced new names on people of oppressed groups. Kohli cited it as a way for White Anglo Saxons, English and Protestantism to stay in control, which created a culture of non-reciprocal relationships of learning.
To avoid coming off as racist and making your peers, coworkers or colleagues feel less valued, ask them for the correct pronunciation of their name. According to research in a case study done by Ranjana Srinivasan, a psychologist at the Manhattan VA Medical Center, people feel validated when they are asked how to correctly pronounce their names and frequently saying them can make it feel less intimidating. Srinivasan added that people should be given the power to tell others how they would like to be referred to.
If America strives to be a country where all people are equal, then we must not accept racism and microaggressions of any degree. Willfully mispronouncing someone’s name strips the cultural identity of ethnic communities. White people must learn to pronounce the characters that ring the tune of someone’s heritage and acknowledge the lineage of diverse families.
People of color must not be afraid to correct people who stumble over their culture and use it as an opportunity to display their pride instead of accepting an anglicized nickname from others.