One of my first memories of experiencing racism firsthand is from my childhood. I remember sitting in a middle school class with a substitute going down a list of names to take attendance. As she read through the list of names she paused and said she wasn’t even going to bother reading this name because it wasn’t in English. I immediately knew it was me. “The letters Q and A do not go together in English,” I was told. But that’s the thing—my name is in Arabic, not English.
I have had my name butchered my entire life, from classmates to friends to colleagues. I remember being given nicknames that didn’t even come close to my name, nor were they shorter. Often these nicknames were even longer than my own name. But it all came down to the feeling of fitting in. I gave into these nicknames as a young South Asian girl who had just transitioned from a full-time Islamic school where my name was common, to a public school where I was an outsider. I gave into incorrect pronunciations of my last name to avoid the conflict and misunderstandings that often happen when you correct someone. I let it slide, thinking that it didn’t really matter and that these nicknames made me more “American.”
But over time, I grew to regret this. I learned that not only are people who refuse to say my name correctly not worth having in my life, but that I was perpetuating a microaggression that in fact increases xenophobia. Repeatedly mispronouncing someone’s name, or in some cases completely changing someone’s name, is a form of microaggression. By allowing this and giving up correcting the person, I was perpetuating it. Some nicknames or renames, including ones I was given, allow for people to think it’s okay to act in this manner should someone not know how to say a name.
By declaring me Alisha in class as opposed to Aysha, some teachers enforced the ideology that if they cannot pronounce something deemed foreign, they do not need to learn how to do so. This microaggression not only perpetuates xenophobia but negatively impacts the growth of youth.
Multiple studies have found that mispronouncing the names of students not only impacts their confidence and emotional well-being but harms their ability to learn. Additionally, a 2012 study titled “Teachers, Please Learn Our Names!: Racial Microaggressions and the K-12 Classrooms” found that mispronouncing the names of students of color constituted a racial microaggression because it created shame and disassociation from one’s culture.
I am far from alone in this experience, and the recent incidents sparking outrage in the Asian American community are witness to this. From individuals refusing to pronounce Vice President Kamala Harris’ name correctly to people not acknowledging the names of those who have been impacted by the increasing violence against Asian Americans, the fight for equality never ends.
If we want to support the Asian American community, the first thing we must do is learn how to address its members properly. Learning to pronounce a person's name correctly is not just a common courtesy—it’s an important effort in creating an inclusive environment.
The first step to learning how to pronounce someone’s name is asking and actively listening.
I still am surprised when people say my name and ask if they said it correctly. These little actions make such a difference. Here’s an example of what you can say: “It’s important for me to pronounce your name correctly. Can you say it for me phonetically, please?” Simple questions like this not only show 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 asking a colleague or someone in your friend circle directly. In this 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. Nor should you give them a “nickname” that is actually another name you find easier to pronounce; for example, Alisha for Aysha.
It’s also important to speak up when you see someone intentionally doing this. I remember in high school, someone began calling a friend and me “Harold and Kumar” because she was East Asian and I was South Asian. At the time it felt like a cool nickname, but it slowly ended up replacing our names, to an extent that even teachers thought they could call us both that. That’s why it's important to be an ally when you see these things happening. In my case, I didn't have an issue with the nickname initially, but there are many situations where nicknames are given to people without their consent.
Reclaiming your name after years of people refusing to accept it is difficult, so support those who speak up, and respect their identity. If you see a colleague or friend correcting someone, support them and encourage others to say their name correctly too.
Too many people have mispronounced and thus dishonored the names of both victims and survivors in recent attacks against the AAPI community. As a result, the Asian American Journalism Association (AAJA) has released a pronunciation guide for those killed in the Atlanta spa shootings with Chinese-language and Korean-language names; six of the eight victims are Asian. “As more information emerges about the victims' identities, center their stories and those within the community. Please consult members of the AAPI community to ensure accurate spelling and pronunciation of Asian names,” AAJA said on its website.
Use these resources and respect those around you by learning how to pronounce their names. Don’t make it a big deal or over-explain that someone’s name is too difficult for you to pronounce; instead, approach your learning with kindness and an open mind. Pointing out that someone’s name sounds “foreign” only makes them feel further excluded and takes away from the effort of you trying to learn how to pronounce it. Mistakes happen, but learn to be open and keep trying. Don’t feel embarrassed to ask again or apologize if you unintentionally get it wrong despite hearing it.
For those of you who are wondering, my first name is pronounced Eye-Sh-Ah, and my last Ka-Maar, not Ku-Maar—there’s no U. Despite my name being right there in front of them in emails, on forms, etc. and me spelling it out by using a word to correlate with each letter, people have added a U to my name for years. It’s different 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 hard is unacceptable. If you can learn how to pronounce the names of your favorite foods, television characters, and places, you can learn how to pronounce our names. As Orange Is The New Black actress Uzo Aduba eloquently reiterates in her mother’s words: “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”