Updated: Nov 20, 2021
By Mehr Lokhandwala
It is my first day of high school and I’m extremely nervous. But I’m prepared. I have gone over all the worst-case scenarios and there seems to be very little chance that any of them will occur. I trickle into one of my classes with a bunch of other students, none of whom I know. I find a seat and wait for the teacher to start going down the attendance list. That’s when I realize that I forgot to consider the one thing that would easily fit on my worst-case scenario list - my name.
As the teacher starts going through the attendance I get nervous. They gracefully say all the other student’s names and then they pause. They stare at the paper for a little while and try to mouth a name to themselves. I know then that this is my name.
“Myhair Lokowala, um sorry, Mere Lokdwala”, says the teacher in confusion. I want to sink into my chair as the words stumble out of their mouth. I raise my shaky hand in the air and whisper, “Here.” I feel mortified and alone.
That is how my first day of high school went.
Our names are meaningful: they hold our identity and they are a part of us. They are not just a bunch of letters put together. Despite this, our names are easily mispronounced or said completely incorrectly. Many people change or shorten their names so that their names ‘fit in’. I myself am accountable for this too. We alter our name for other people's convenience. With time this leads us to unknowingly change the way we lead our lives.
When I started altering my name, I didn’t even recognize I was doing so. This included providing another name at Starbucks, shortening my last name on my social media pages, and telling customers a whole other name, a name that would ‘fit in.’
Growing up in Western culture and having my first name come from Persia and my last name from India, hearing my name mispronounced or modified has become a part of my life. Unfortunately, my experiences are not unique. Through numerous conversations with friends, who also have names also labelled as ‘unusual’ or ‘not normal’, it has become abundantly clear that this issue is larger than one or two people.
This issue inherently affects BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People Of Color). We all (knowingly or unknowingly) carry the subconscious idea that white names are normal and other names are not. It is time to accept that this is a micro-aggression. It stems from the belief that White people will always have the upper hand; that their names remain the norm and any name that does not fit their criteria is foreign and, therefore, does not deserve the same respect.
Having trouble saying someone's name may be tolerable. However, a problem arises when people repeatedly say it wrong or alter it for their own convenience. This is racism, no exceptions - having no issue with white names but changing or butchering others names for one's personal convenience.
In a Tedx talk by Gerardo Ochoa, he talks about how Jennifer Gonzalez categorizes the three different types of people who mispronounce names.
Starting with the ‘Fumbler Mumbler’: they typically put their best foot forward when trying to pronounce your name. They genuinely want to say your name right, but they struggle. Moreover, they tend to get nervous when saying your name but they express good intentions and want to be respectful.
Next, we have the ‘Arrogant Manager’. They could care less about whether they said your name right or not. They will not ask how to pronounce your name. They will continue talking, oblivious to the mistake they made, causing you to feel invisible. This is a prime example of a micro-aggression.
Lastly, we have the ‘Calibrator’. Much like the ‘Fumbler Mumbler’, they genuinely try to say your name right. They will ask you again and again if they are saying it right and will keep trying till they get it right. Ochoa says they may even come back the next day to see if they are saying your name right.
Ochoa subsequently goes on to say that he includes one more to this list: the ‘Evador’. This person would rather call you a different name and not even try to say your name. They typically ask if there is another name they can call you or if you have a nickname. Additionally, they refer to your name as ‘that.' 'How do you say that?' vs, 'How do you say your name?' This makes an enormous difference.
I think we all know at least one person who fits into these categories. Maybe you recognize yourself as someone who fits into one these categories, I know I do: I am definitely a Calibrator.
Here is the good news, no matter what category you may fit into, I hope you would want to become the best version of yourself. Therefore, here is what you can do. First of all, if you are not sure how to say someone's name - just ask! Believe me when I say that it would be more admirable if you ask a couple of times, rather than mispronouncing or changing someone's name for your own convenience.
Next, be an ally: do not stand around and merely watch other people mispronounce or change someone else's name. Try to correct them. While I recognize that it can be frightening to correct someone, it is more important to be an ally than be someone who condones racist micro-aggressions. When names are mispronounced we feel invisible, disrespected and like an outcast. Playing a role in that is not something to be proud of.
As a global community trying to make the world a better place for everyone, let us keep in mind that you do not need to be a celebrity, politician, or activist to do the right thing. You just need to be a decent human being and start by saying my name right.
Written by writer Mehr Lokhandwala