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Why is it so difficult for people to attempt to say “un-American” names, but it’s possible to say Tchaikovsky?

Key & Peele had a point: Imagine if people pronounced American names just as they did un-American ones? (Image via Digital Trends)

Don’t you hate it when Starbucks can never spell your name right, even when you spell it out for them? Or, when a presenter says your name wrong in front of a room full of people? How about when you’re sitting in class and there’s a substitute teacher? These scenarios are probably very relatable to people with unusual names, and the scenarios probably happen often. Of course, it’s easy to say Sally, Jessica, John and Carl, but why it’s easy needs to be addressed. Many Americans have been conditioned to think that nothing other than English is worth pronouncing. This includes people’s names that are not necessarily within the American standard.

Oluwasolafunmi Adetokunbo (o-lu-wa-so-fun-mi a-day-toe-kun-bo) is probably a difficult name for most readers to pronounce. Many may skip over it, or shorten it to make the name easier to say, but it’s interesting to note that many Americans can pronounce Dostoyevsky, van Gogh, Bourgeois, Beethoven or even Michelangelo, but usually have a difficult time with non-European names and minority names. A number of kids grow up hating their name if they come from a multicultural family because they are teased if their name is different from English names. It’s rare for those with common names to have to sit awkwardly in a classroom watching the professor struggle and stumble over their name, ultimately giving the student a nickname. Butchering of names does not only befall students, but also adults and even famous individuals whose names are splashed all over the press and media.

“Orange is the New Black” actress Uzo Aduba, used to hate her name because no one could pronounce it. Aduba’s, name means, “the road is good.” The meaning comes from her Igbo Nigerian family background. She asked her mother if she could adopt the nickname Zoe to make it easier for people to say her name. However, her mother responded by saying, “Why? If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.” Aduba’s desire to change her name and ultimately herself to conform to an English name cost her birth name, and in a sense her identity.

People grow up with others telling them that their name is too difficult to pronounce. There is a lifetime of shame that comes with a “difficult” name. There is also a notion that those who choose not to pronounce the name are “bad at names.” It should not matter if someone is bad at articulating names. Taking the time to learn a name is a sign of respect and acknowledgement of the person’s identity. It is time to look at the facts when Sadia Latifi, a contributor for The Guardian wrote in her article, “I Always Mispronounce My Name for Americans. I’m Reclaiming the Original”: “When you tell yourself that you’re just “bad with names,” you’re telling others you don’t care to learn more about them.”

No one is “bad with names.” Some may forget easily, but people are always able to pronounce names, so when a person claims that they are bad with names, they just do not want to put in the effort to pronounce the name correctly.

When there is a refusal to attempt the name, it leads the name-bearer to resort to code switching. The name-bearer then has to adopt a double consciousness that consists of catering to the majority and being themselves. When in a setting where multicultural people are not present, they must Americanize their name, but when with those of their culture, they are able to be unique without being embarrassed. There is then a fear of being a cultural sell-out, because there is exhaustion over the constant butchering of their name without a second thought. Cultural code switching is not beneficial because it denies the individual of their own culture and prevents others from experiencing a different culture.

Names hold power, and by denying a person the right to at least have their name attempted to be spoken correctly is denying them agency to themselves. Think about why Holocaust victims were given numbers, and why slaves in America were referred to as “cattle,” or why Native Americans were referred to as “redskins.” All of these labels, which were not true identifiers, were ways to strip people of their own identities, since a name signifies individuality. Even designating an individual with an unwanted nickname proves to be an issue, because then the nicknamer is imposing their own dominance over the person by the unique nickname. Even though this is mostly perpetrated by the majority population, it is not limited to them as minorities from other races participate in the ignorance of enunciating names. In spite of this, people should never be shy and feel as if their name is “too ethnic.” People should instead appreciate unique and uncommon names because they add to their individuality and make them unique.

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