But over time, I ended up regretting it. I learned that not only are people who refuse to pronounce my name correctly not worth saying in my life, but that I was perpetuating a microagression which in fact increases xenophobia. Repeating someone’s name incorrectly, or in some cases changing someone’s name altogether, is a form of microaggression. By allowing this and renouncing correcting the person, I was perpetuating it. Some nicknames or names, including those given to me, make people think it’s okay to act this way if someone doesn’t know how to pronounce a name.
By declaring me Alisha in class as opposed to Aysha, some teachers have imposed the ideology that if they can’t pronounce something deemed foreign, they don’t need to learn how to do it. This microagression not only perpetuates xenophobia, but has a negative impact on the growth of young people.
Numerous studies have shown that mispronouncing students’ names not only impacts their confidence and emotional well-being, but impairs their ability to learn. In addition, a 2012 study titled “Teachers, Please Learn Our Names !: Racial Microagressions and K-12 ClassesFound that the mispronunciation of the names of students of color was racial micro-aggression as it created shame and disassociation in their culture.
I am far from alone in this experience, and the recent incidents which have provoked outrage in the Asian American community are witness to it. Individuals refusing to pronounce Vice President Kamala Harris’ naming correctly to those who do not recognize the names of those who have been affected by the growing violence against Asian Americans, the fight for equality never stops.
If we are to support the Asian-American community, the first thing we need to do is learn how to properly address its members. Learning how to pronounce a person’s name correctly is not just a courtesy, it is a significant effort in creating an inclusive environment.
The first step in learning to pronounce someone’s name is to ask and actively listen.
I’m always surprised when people say my name and ask me if they said it right. These little actions make such a difference. Here is an example of what you can say: “It is important for me to pronounce your name correctly. Can you tell me phonetically, please? Simple questions like this show not only that you respect someone’s identity, but that you are genuinely interested in learning how to pronounce their name correctly.
Let’s say you feel nervous or embarrassed to ask a coworker or someone in your circle of friends directly. In that case, maybe ask a friend or colleague how to pronounce it. A third strategy is to use online tools available that help you pronounce people’s names.
Another important thing to remember is to never give someone a nickname without their permission. You should also not give them a “nickname” which is actually another name that you find easier to pronounce; for example, Alisha for Aysha.
It’s also important to speak up when you see someone doing this on purpose. I remember in high school someone started calling a friend and me “Harold and Kumar” because she was Asian and I was South Asian. At the time, that sounded like a cool nickname, but it slowly began to replace our names, so much so that even the teachers thought they could call us both. That’s why it’s important to be an ally when you see these things happening. In my case, I didn’t have a problem with the nickname initially, but there are many situations where nicknames are given to people without their consent.
Getting your name back after years of refusing to accept it is difficult, so support those who speak out and respect their identities. If you see a colleague or friend correcting someone, support them and encourage others to pronounce their name correctly.
Too many people have mispronounced and therefore dishonored the names of victims and survivors in recent attacks on the AAPI community. As a result, the Asian American Journalism Association (AAJA) released a pronunciation guide for those killed in the Atlanta spa shootings with names in Chinese and Korean; six of the eight victims are Asian. “As more and more information emerges about the identity of the victims, focus their stories and those of the community. Please consult with members of the AAPI community to ensure the correct spelling and pronunciation of Asian names ”, AAJA said on his website.
Use these resources and respect those around you as you learn to pronounce their names. Don’t make a big deal out of it, and don’t over-explain that someone’s name is too hard for you to pronounce; instead, approach your learning with kindness and an open mind. Pointing out that someone’s name sounds “foreign” only makes you feel more left out and takes the effort out of trying to learn how to pronounce it. Mistakes do happen, but learn to be open and keep trying. Don’t feel embarrassed to ask again or apologize if you unintentionally make a mistake despite hearing it.
For those of you wondering, my first name is pronounced Eye-Sh-Ah, and my last Ka-Maar, not Ku-Maar – there is no U. Although my name is right there in front of them in emails, on forms, etc. and me by spelling it using a word to correlate with each letter, people have added a U to my name for years. It’s different from accidentally mispronouncing someone’s name and being open to learning how to pronounce it correctly – that’s okay. But refusing to try because you think it’s too difficult is unacceptable. If you can learn to pronounce the names of your favorite foods, TV characters, and places, you can learn to pronounce our names. As Orange is the new black actress Uzo Aduba eloquently repeats in his mother’s words: “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky, Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”