My name is Alyssa-Caroline. It sounds a bit pretentious, I know, but it’s my name and I like being called by the whole thing; it feels weird to me when people call me by only one half. I often communicate this to people, and so far, every time, people have immediately apologised and switched to calling me by my preferred name. Why? Because without necessarily realising or articulating it, when people make an effort to call me by my preferred name, they’re telling me: ‘You matter. Your comfort and your identity is important to me, and you deserve respect.’
And whether or not people make a conscious effort to think through their reasoning for doing so, it seems pretty obvious to me that they do it to connect. They do it because they realise it feels awkward if someone gets your name wrong when taking attendance in a lecture, or in a moment of professional networking. They do it because, if this is the start of a potential friendship, they recognise that we’re not going to get on very well if you blatantly misidentify me from the start. So why doesn’t it work the same way for people from other cultures? Why is it that people are willing to slog through my mouthful of a name, but upon encountering a name that sounds a little bit different, a little bit ‘not from around here,’ they immediately feel the need to convert that name to some bastardised English equivalent?
The same goes for unapologetic mispronunciations of names as well, the sort which are generally followed by the explanation, ‘Sorry, I just can’t say that!’ or the even more entitled, ‘How do you expect me to pronounce that?’ And that’s where the same principle kicks in. Because if you make an effort to connect with me by correctly saying my name, then it follows that you can only alienate a person by refusing to correctly say theirs. And in doing so, a person communicates two things. Firstly, ‘I don’t care about respecting or connecting with you, because you don’t align with my cultural privilege.’ And secondly, ‘I’m too uneducated to pronounce your name unless it’s dumbed down for me.’
Now, chances are, most people wouldn’t want to communicate that about themselves. In fact, they probably don’t even think it applies. But when we attempt to reduce a name from another culture to a more common English name— ‘I can’t pronounce that, so I’m just going to call you Tom’—we’re really just flouting our own ignorance. Except for the fact that it’s also heavily tinged with prejudice. And if that sounds like fake news to you, just think about how proud people are to correctly pronounce things like Dostoyevsky and Mozart, names which—big surprise! —hail from other countries. What’s the difference? These names are associated with culture and refinement. It says something about us that we know these names and can speak intelligently about these men’s accomplishments. It also doesn’t hurt that they were white.
So, whether people realise it or not, this is a perfect example of subtle racism, the type that—on the surface—is so subtle that it’s become widely accepted. Here’s the thing, though: it’s only subtle to the people doing it. But for the people experiencing it, it’s a glaring reminder that your culture, your heritage, your very identity doesn’t matter to the person with whom you’re interacting. And that’s not okay. No type of racially charged micro-aggression is harmless, but insults to names are especially damaging because it’s directly tied to someone’s identity.
So, if you find yourself asking what you can do to alleviate this problem and to train yourself to be more inclusive or set a positive example for others around you, the good news is it’s really simple. Just ask someone their name. Ask them how they say it. Give it a try, and if you get it wrong, ask them to correct you. In some cases, you may sound like a baby learning to talk at first. You might feel a little awkward. But that’s okay. A few seconds of awkwardness are worth it for the sake of showing basic respect and decency. Because when you make an effort to connect with someone, however small, you have the opportunity to make the world a little brighter and a little more inclusive.