By Sonja Cherry-Paul
When my daughter was born, I unapologetically named her Imani. It’s a lovely, lyrical name that means “faith” in Swahili. It is the 7th day and principle of Kwanzaa, the final green candle to light in affirmation of our self-worth. In our suburban New York home, she grew up proud that her name is beautiful and culturally significant. Outside of our home, experiences with her name have caused harm.
As a child, Imani looked for her name on keychains, magnets, and mugs in stationery stores and souvenir shops. She never found it and was disappointed. But it was at school where she was made to feel invisible.
I watched as she defended the name I’d dreamed of giving her back when she was stardust waiting to form.
“No, Imani with two i’s not e’s.” “Imani, not Amani.”
“Spelled with an I, but sounds like an e. Like the word imagine,” she’d patiently explain.
But eventually, after too many affronts for any child just trying to understand how she fits into the world, she surrendered, weary of tolerating the hard I-mani or Ah-mani from the well-meaning White educators in her world.
Now, as a young adult, when she orders a drink from Starbucks, she provides her middle name: Olivia. “It’s a name they can write and pronounce,” she tells her friend Sherri, without need to explain who the “they” are. I am reminded of the year at school when administrators decided that the staff who worked in the cafeteria would wear name badges with just their first names.
Never mind that they, all black and brown individuals, would be the only staff members in the building referred to by their first name by the mostly white student body. Never mind the cultural dilemma that would trouble the hearts of many black and brown students, raised to refer to the adults in their world by their last name — Mrs. Ramírez, Mr. Akinyemi — as a sign of respect. I discussed these issues with an administrator and was simply told the new first-name policy is due to their “difficult-to-pronounce” last names. Difficult for whom?
“You’re still doing that?” Sherri asked. “But I know about six Imanis. I don’t see what’s difficult about saying your name at all.”
I asked Imani about this one night; about Sherri’s response to the use of her middle name at Starbucks or when ordering a pizza; about avoiding the tediousness of teaching others how to spell her name. “You know I’ve spent my whole life listening to people mangle my name,” she replied. “And each time it’s like a little part of my soul dies. I can’t allow that anymore.”
Self-preservation. I nod my head knowingly. Inside, is a rage barely contained.
No one should be made to feel that they have to defend their name. No one should suffer the daily indignities of being made to feel that their name is odd, wrong, and in need of fixing; or hearing mispronunciations or seeing misspellings of their name by the adults they interact with each day. Research by Kohli and Solórzano (2012) shows that experiences such as these can
result in students “believing that their culture or aspects of their identity are an inconvenience or are inferior” (p. 455). Subsequently, schools and classrooms can be shame- and anxiety-inducing spaces for some students. Microaggressions such as these are an assault on the spirit; a fracturing of the soul that cannot be repaired and must not be ignored or tolerated, especially in the classroom.
I think about my own name journey. With its European origins, I cannot characterize the experiences surrounding my name as microaggressions. But an unnecessary struggle has endured nevertheless.
“Sonja? With a j?” Throughout elementary and middle school I answered that question thousands of times. It was more than a question, though. It was an accusation. This scene continues to play out in my adulthood. “Sonja with a j?” As if I’m the one who is unsure of how to spell her own name. “And it’s pronounced Sohn-yah?”
I think about the ways I’ve tried to make others feel comfortable about my name. The cost of these efforts is incalculable. “It’s Sonja. Yes, Sonja with a j.” Eyes squint back in response, seemingly scrutinizing more than just my name, as if they question my truthfulness, or perhaps my parents’ choices. And then there are the misspellings even when my name is in plain sight. It feels intentional. As if, “Sonja with a j” is just plain wrong to the name shamers who are compelled to “fix” it. Or fix me.
A lack of an understanding about how to pronounce or spell certain names is revealing. For many of us it illuminates an American life filled with the Johns, Amandas, Jennifers, and Davids of the world. It demonstrates a full embrace of the Western canon of names; an acceptance of its limitations. For others, namely the predominantly White teaching force in the United States, it’s a degradation of a students’ racial- and cultural identity. And it spotlights a troublesome paradox: That although what could be characterized as “difficult-to-pronounce” names such as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Rembrandt, Matisse, or Duchamp are known to simply roll off of the tongues of many adults and even elementary school students, the name “Imani” is a head scratcher?
When I was little, my favorite television show was “The Magic Garden.” Mom would make me bologna sandwiches on Wonder Bread cut into shapes. Crusts off. And every day, I’d wait, with my circle and star sandwiches, transfixed in front of the television, to hear my name sung at the end of The Hello Song. “Hi Lisa and Tommy and Robin and José,” hosts Carole and Paula would say, peering into the camera and acknowledging the names of children who they could “see” were watching their show. I’d imagine how wonderful it would be to hear my name; what it would feel like to be seen. Me. Sonja.
For all of the children waiting to be seen, seeking affirmation of their existence in the world — “Hello!”
“Hi Jayven and Wayeshia and Tahj and Le’aysha.”
“Hello Azeez and Ximena and Solome; Hi Akua and Anisha, Baraka and Eiftu.”
I see you. I sing your names and pronounce each glorious syllable exactly as they are.
TAKEAWAYS FOR EDUCATORS
There are many students who go through K-12 schooling without hearing their name pronounced correctly. Commit to respecting students’ names. Further, 82% of educators in the United States are White teaching an increasingly racially and culturally diverse student body. It is imperative that educators avoid the microaggression of mispronunciation of students’ names if we want all students to thrive both emotionally and academically.
- Prepare for students to enter your classroom by learning how to pronounce their names before the first day of school. Visit websites like the ones listed below. Practice saying students’ names. Write them phonetically in your lesson plan book where you can refer to them as needed. And check with students, discretely, to be certain.
- Spell names correctly. Rather than assuming the spelling of your students’ names, put forth the effort to find out how.
- Conduct an audit of your world. Which museums do you frequent? Whose stories do you read about? What media do you consume? How can you expand beyond narrow limitations of the norm? If you truly care about and want to connect with all of your students you’ll take action to make the unfamiliar more familiar.
Teachers, please learn our names!: racial microagressions and the K-12 classroom by Rita Kohli & Daniel G. Solórzano in Race Ethnicity and Education volume 15, issue 4, 2015
The Lasting Impact of Mispronouncing Students’ Names by Claire McLaughlin NEA Today
Getting Names Right by Ali Michael
Sonja Cherry-Paul has taught middle school students for twenty years and is a doctoral candidate in curriculum and teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. She has presented at numerous conferences on reading and writing instruction and on addressing silences around issues related to race and racism in classrooms and schools. Sonja is a staff developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. She’s written two books Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning, and Flip Your Writing Workshop, both co-authored with Dana Johansen. Reach her on Twitter @SonjaCherryPaul.