This topic has been coming up a lot these last some weeks.
“Oooh, that’s a beautiful name. Can I call you [a shorter version of my name]? Do you have a nickname?” – a very common response to my name from white Americans. My name’s beautiful, but you won’t make the effort to pronounce it correctly?
When I was younger, I’d say, “Yeah, sure, you can call me Naz.” But now, after having realized that if the same white Americans who refuse (not unable) to pronounce the name SHEHNAZ can very easily say Schwarzenegger’s name, yeah, this is a matter of respect. If they can pronounce Dostoevsky, they can sure as hell pronounce SHEHNAZ. If they can pronounce Fitzgerlad, they can certainly pronounce KASHMALA (my niece’s name). Or, as Uzomaka Aduba, the Emmy-winning actress from “Orange is the New Black,” describes her mother’s reaction when Uzomaka asked to be called Zoey because “no one can pronounce my name”: “… without skipping a beat, [my mother] was like, ‘If they can learn to say Tchaikovasky and Dostoyevsky and Michelangelo, then they can learn to say Uzomaka.” Mind = blown ❤ Add to this list of names Galifianakis, as pointed out in this tweet.
Because it’s about respect. If people, especially white people, can learn to pronounce the *difficult* names of (certain) European peoples, they can learn to pronounce the names of peoples from other continents where people are considered “ethnic” and “people of color” because white people have no race or color.
My sister once attended a lecture at an ICNA where the speaker, a black male Muslim, discussed the relationship between respect and names: When people don’t make an effort to pronounce your name as correctly as possible for them, it is because you mean nothing to them, and they have no respect for you. Your name isn’t “Mo” – your name is Mohammad, and don’t settle for less. If they can pronounce Schwarzenegger, they can pronounce Mohammad, he told the audience.
Around the same time that my sister’s and my lives changed because of this powerful reminder, I read an essay titled “Why couldn’t I have been named Ashley?” by Immaculeta Achilike. Here’s an excerpt from her essay, starting on page 5:
I was born, on July 7th, 1986, at Parkland Hospital of Dallas, Texas. I was the first American-born Nigerian in both of my parents’ families. I was my parents’ first joy, and in their joy, they gave me the name that would haunt me for the rest of my life, Immaculeta Uzoma Achilike.
The first time I actually became aware of my name was on the first day of first grade. I went to school loaded with all my school supplies and excited to see all of my old kindergarten friends. I couldn’t wait to see who my new teacher was. As I walked into the classroom, all my friends pushed up to me, cooing my name: “Imma, Imma I missed you so much.” The teacher walked in with the attendance sheet. She told everyone to quiet down so she could call roll. Before she started, she said something I thought would have never applied to me. She said, “Before I call roll, I apologize if I mispronounce anyone’s name.” with a very apologetic look on her face. She looked down at the attendance sheet, paused for a minute, and then looked up with an extremely puzzled look on her face. I remember thinking that there was probably some weird name before mine; although, my name was always the first name to be called in kindergarten. Suddenly, my palms started sweating and then she began to hopelessly stutter my name, “Im-Immaculet Arch-liki, I mean, Achei…” Here, I interrupted. My ears burned with embarrassment and droplets of perspiration formed on my nose. “Did I say it right?” she said with the same apologetic look on her face. Before I responded, the laughs that the other kids in class had been holding back suddenly exploded, like a volatile vial of glycerin, into peals of laughter. One kid thought it was so funny his chubby face started turning red and I could see a tear gradually making its way down his face. I found myself wishing I could sink into the ground and never come back, I hated being the laughing stock.
I never really recovered from the shock of that day. From that day forward, the first day of school was always my most feared day. I didn’t know what to do; all I could do was to tell my teachers, “I go by Imma.”
This is the experience of mostly every person of color who has a “non-white sounding” name. For some of us, it’s more haunting than others; for some of us, we manage to find a white-sounding nickname (like “Imma”… or “Emma”).
Some children have people in their lives who teach them to be confident about who they are, about the history that is attached to their names, about the meanings and potential of their names. Others don’t. In Immaculeta’s case:
The summer of my seventh-grade year, my family and I took a vacation to our “home” in Nigeria, where my parents were born. My cousin and I were playing cards, talking girl talk, and relating our most embarrassing moments. Each tried to see whose story could top whose. I told one story of how I wet the bed at a sleepover, and she told me how she had farted in class during a test. That was a hoot. Then, I told her the story of how I was laughed at because of my weird name. I thought it was pretty funny, but she didn’t laugh. She had the most serious look on her face, then she asked me, “Immaculeta Uzoma Achilike, do you know what your name means?” I shook my head at her and that’s when she started laughing. I thought she was making fun of me, and as I started to leave she said: ‘Immaculeta means ‘purity’, ‘Uzoma means ‘the good road’ and…”. Having heard her words, I stopped walking away and turned around in amazement. What does Achilike mean?” I asked. After a long pause she calmly said, “Archilike means ‘to rule without force”. I was astonished and pleased. I never knew what my name meant.
My name is Immaculeta Uzoma Achilike. I am the daughter of first-generation Nigerian immigrants. I am the daughter of hardworking and brave parents. My name means “to rule without force.” My grandfather was a wealthy man of generous character. When I say my name in Nigeria, people know me as the granddaughter of a wealthy man of generous character. They know me by my name. There my name is not embossed on any pencil or vanity plate. It is etched in the minds of the people.
My name is Immaculeta Uzoma Achilike.
This is so beautiful. (Well, okay, save the “wealthiness” of her grandfather and that being a matter of pride for her.) But her learning to take pride in her name, to recognize her name for its meaning and beauty and power, is so inspiring.
And, dude?!?! “Immaculate” is an English word, and “Immaculeta” is (isn’t it obviously so?) obviously a feminine form of “immaculate” – how, then, did her teachers mispronounce the name? But, clearly, the teachers looked at the full name, figured this student was “foreign,” and decided to pretend not to know how to pronounce the name correctly. This is a common problem with names that “appear” to be related to (often common) English words/names, but only because the person’s last name is not a common American name, the person is *obviously* a foreigner, and therefore, the name is just not supposed to be pronounceable by “Americans.” Yes, unfortunately, an “ethnic-sounding” name (that is, a non-white sounding name) is likely going to be a source of trouble for the name-bearers, and some have had to change their names in order to, for instance, get a job, but this is because white people still expect us all to have only white-sounding names.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not implying that every human should be able to pronounce everyone’s names correctly. Often, it is linguistically/phonetically not possible to do so. All languages do not have the same letters or the same pronunciations of the same letters (e.g., in Arabic vs Pashto, which share several letters but the pronunciations of those letters are totally different). We also, in spoken Pashto, do not have the letters F and V, common in English and many other languages, and so what happens is most Pashto speakers pronounce names like Zufaash as “Zupaash” or “Veena” as “Weena.” My cousins in Swat pronounce the letter “five” as “paaif,” and when I have tried to see if they can pronounce it as “five” at all, I’ve failed for the most part. (I don’t know how I feel yet about my attempts to have “corrected” their pronunciations.) My professors once showed me this video where the Indian singer goes “Mummy, Daddy, I want a love marriage” – but pronounces “love” as “laaao”). Perhaps this song/video is intentionally funny, and so the v/w mixing may not be real, but the point is still that phonetically, it’s difficult or impossible for people of certain linguistic backgrounds to be able to say the letter “V” the way it’s expected in popular English usages.
All this is to note that, of course, linguistic and phonetic differences are perfectly legitimate reasons to not be able to pronounce someone’s name correctly. But you can always, always ask someone how to pronounce their name as correctly as you possibly can – and it is that effort that is most important. And, actually, most names that people refuse to learn to pronounce correctly do have letters and syllables that are already common in English (Immaculetta, for example, in the above-referenced essay; or my own name!).
But when people, especially white people or otherwise racially dominant groups of people in any given country, act like a name is supposed to be hard for them to pronounce because they’ve ever never heard it or because it’s not “common” in their experience, know that they’re basically expecting everyone to have, in the case of America, white names. No, not black names. Check this ridiculous article out, for instance, where the author mocks black names and demands that people stop giving their children “crazy ghetto names”! In fact, black American names are so feared and so shamed that a satirical article told (the fake) story of a judge’s ruling to outlaw black names and demand that black women receive approval from three whites before naming their babies–and people not only believed this story (because it actually sounds pretty real) but many even agreed with the imaginary judge’s imaginary ruling! Click here to read more. The same article then sums up the deep history of black names as follows:
The story of distinctive black names in the U.S. is far richer, more varied and interesting than the celebrity’s mere pathological dread of appearing normal. From the beginning, many black Americans had distinctive names. The weirdly classical Caesar was a particularly common slave name, bestowed, it would seem, by slaveholders with a profoundly unfunny sense of irony. And sometimes distinctive slave names were carried out of Africa and preserved: Some African societies name children after the day of the week they were born, and “there is a preponderance of day names among the leaders of the very early slave revolts,” writes Joey Lee Dillard in “Black Names.” From early on, then, some distinctive black names were tied to black resistance against white oppression.
Some of the posts in this Quora post also explain the history of the distinct nature of black American names, discussing particularly the combination of multiple names/words to make a name out of them and the history of this trend.
There’s a beautiful book called The Namesake (also a movie – it’s got Irfan Khan and Tabu in it, y’all! Really, REALLY great movie! Kal Penn, too) where the main character, an American child born to Indian immigrant parents, hates his name and tries to change it or at least tells his classmates/teachers that his name is something else. His parents are hurt and don’t get why he would want to change that. So one day, the father takes him out on a beautiful walk and explains to him how he came up with the name. The story he shares with his son is about a moment in his life that saved him from death, and the child never looks at his name the same way after hearing this.
We live in a world where all people come from different backgrounds–of all types–where we have no right to expect that only our heritage be represented by people who do not share our own heritage. People have that right to name their children whatever name carries meaning for them or whatever sounds good to them or makes sense to them. Understand that your expectation otherwise is a remnant of your colonialist tendencies that make you feel entitled for absolutely no reason. I, as a Pashtun/Afghan woman–or, actually, I, as ANYONE–do not owe it to you to give my children names that YOU as a white person can pronounce especially when those names do not speak to me, to my history, to my children, to my heritage, to my struggles, to my accomplishments. Your expectations of me are misplaced and misguided and colonialist, and I will not entertain them.