Why it matters when you mispronounce Kamala
Whether it is the Vice President or a colleague, there’s no excuse for mispronouncing people’s names.
You may have missed it in the chaos of the 2020 Election and the pandemic but last October, David Perdue, a senator from Georgia, mocked Kamala Harris’ name at a Trump rally. After intentionally butchering her name, Perdue ended his remarks with, “I don’t know, whatever.” The crowd laughed because apparently being so ignorant (and arrogant) as to mispronounce an ethnic name is funny. Perdue’s people dismissed the whole incident because apparently Perdue didn’t mean anything by it.
But Perdue did mean something by it — else he wouldn’t have even bothered to mock Kamala’s name. By pretending that Kamala’s name was so difficult to pronounce because it seemed so foreign or weird to him, Perdue was being xenophobic and racist. By mocking Kamala’s name, not only was he being xenophobic and racist, he was minimizing Kamala as a person and lawmaker. Here was a woman who had accomplished so much in her life — as a DA, California attorney general, US Senator, and now Vice President of the United States — and even she was reduced to ignorant mocking, pocking fun of her ethnicity and heritage.
For those of us with ethnic names, this incident was all too familiar. Regardless of the history behind your ethnic name or how popular it may be outside the Western world, you will be subjected to a lot of grieve every time you introduce yourself. I believe that most people are genuinely clueless about how xenophobic, racist, or just plain annoying they’re acting in response to an ethnic name. But sometimes like Perdue, they’re acting like assholes and they know it.
I really don’t think my name is that hard to pronounce, especially since I don’t expect anyone to correctly pronounce it in Arabic (in Arabic, it sounds more like “nur” but I’m perfectly fine if you pronounce it “nor”). Heck, there’s even a popular Queen with my name. But even with a fairly easy to pronounce ethnic name (it is only 4 letters!), I’ve seen and heard it all.
There was the substitute teacher in sixth grade in Southern Illinois who referred to me as “manure” because a student told her that was how to pronounce my name. Can we pause here at how stupid this woman must have been to be played by a sixth grader? The irony of this incident is that I had only been in the United States for about a year and my vocabulary was pretty limited … I didn’t even know what manure was.
There were the consultants at work about a decade ago who were so struggling with pronouncing the Americanized version of my name that I quipped that “nor” wasn’t even the correct Arabic pronunciation of my name. They then spent at least five minutes attempting to correctly pronounce my name in Arabic and then failing every time. I don’t think they ever pronounced my name correctly during the entirety of their time working with my team.
There were the colleagues a few years back who were surprised to see my name in an advertisement in London. These same colleagues then seemed surprised when I informed them that my name is quite popular and even has a rich meaning that makes it popular in Middle Eastern product names and services. They were even more surprised when I told them about how often people on Twitter want my Twitter handle.
And then there are all the people who look at my name and call me, “Ali.” It’s almost as if they stare at all the foreign components of my name and settle on Ali being the whitest and most acceptable option.
I’m sure someone is reading this and rolling their eyes thinking, “What’s the big deal?”
The problem with all these incidents (and with a US Senator poking fun at a Vice Presidential candidate’s name) is that they take the perspective that white, Western names are the norm and any name that doesn’t adhere to those ethnic and linguistic boundaries is abnormal, foreign, and fair game to mockery and scrutiny. And acting like any name that isn’t English, Germanic, or French in origin is “unusual” means that we don’t expect people who hold these names to hold corporate jobs or work in tech, let alone hold positions of power in our society. The less surprised we act when we encounter a name we’re not familiar with, the more accepting we will be of diverse voices in our governments, board rooms, class rooms, and design studios.
You might be wondering what ever happened to David Perdue. In early 2021, David Perdue lost his Senate seat in the Georgia runoff election (Jon Ossoff won his seat). And Kamala Harris became the first female Vice President of the United States … and the first black woman and woman of Asian descent to hold the position. For years to come, Kamala Harris will be written in the history books. And when someone mentions David Perdue, people will say, “Who?”