During the 2020 election, it was clear that former Georgian Senator David Perdue weaponized then Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris’ name to show his lack of respect for his colleague of many years. At a Trump Rally, Perdue referred to Harris as “Ka-ma-la or Ka-ma-la, Kamala-mala-mala,” nonchalantly stating, “I don’t know, whatever.” This incident highlights a larger issue: many Americans do not attempt to respect culturally different names that, most of the time, belong to people of color.
When I talk about the mispronunciation of names, I am not referring to unintentional mistakes, like when you meet someone for the first time or read an unknown name off a list. The incidents I refer to are those in which people purposely mispronounce a name belonging to a person of color.
In many cultures, especially those that belong to people of color, names hold significance. Many parents choose names precisely because of their meaning. By giving their child a name, they bestow part of their child’s cultural identity, something that will stick with their kid for their entire life. My name is just one of the many examples. My parents gave my brother and me traditional Indian names, and our names are one way we connect to our Indian heritage.
Names are beautiful because they are part of that person’s identity, and to mispronounce them on purpose is extremely disrespectful; but more than that, it unveils society’s bias towards traditionally white names. Far too often, society deems names belonging to people of color “too difficult” to pronounce, which is unacceptable. These names are part of our identity, and as such, society needs to make an effort to get them right. If we can get Russian and Italian names right, why can’t we get Indian and African names correct?
While mistakes are inevitable somewhere as multicultural as America, the importance must focus on the reaction to getting a name wrong. It is wrong to make people of color feel inadequate because their names are “too hard” to pronounce. This attitude is reminiscent of forced assimilation that occurred in America. The dominant white majority forced indigenous people and enslaved African children to change their names to ensure that these non-white cultures did not overtake. This name mispronunciation shows an apparent power dynamic, most often allowing non-people of color to disrespect BIPOC.
People of color deserve to have their identities respected, and part of that respect is attempting to pronounce culturally different names. It does not need to be perfect, but we need to make an effort because it is not right for us to ignore blatant disrespect. BIPOC names hold meaning and importance, and we should treat them as such.