“Your Name is a Song” is a children’s book written by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and illustrated by Luisa Uribe. The story is about a little girl named Kora, who feels frustrated after her first day at school because her teacher and classmates repeatedly mispronounce her name. The girl tells her mother she never wants to come back to school. On their walk home through the city, the girl’s mother teaches her about the music behind the pronunciation of African, Asian, Black-American, Latinx and Middle Eastern names. It is the perfect book to help young students talk about and celebrate their identities through their names. After teaching in the United States for 15 years, unfortunately, I can tell you this little girl’s story is commonplace in schools all around the country.
Names are identifiers. They are extensions of who we are. They are tied to our cultures, heritages, spiritualities and family histories. Our names are part of our identities. For a student, hearing their name pronounced correctly is a reaffirmation of their identity and a celebration of who they are. The mispronunciation of their name, on the other hand, has quite the opposite effect. It is the sort of microaggression that frequently goes overlooked, but that reaches the very depth of children’s hearts because it is a direct message to their identity.
Even though most of the time, there’s no ill intent behind the mispronunciation of names, the very act sometimes sends a message rooted in bigotry. It communicates — in the words of Pages Matam, Elizabeth Acevedo, and G. Yamazawa in their poem “Unforgettable”— that students are: “Foreign. Impoverished. Illegal. What they hear is, ‘Go back where you came from!’”
Watch a performance of the poem below.
Not long ago, I posted Warsan Shire’s poem “Give Your Daughters Difficult Names” on Twitter only to have several people, including immigrants (Google: internalized oppression), play devil’s advocate when it came to names. Their arguments were all in favor of assimilation to make life easier (aka catering to whiteness). The issue here is that people use a Eurocentric lens to judge which names are challenging to pronounce and which names are easier.
I’m currently a Spanish teacher, but I was a teacher for emergent English speakers for years. As a Latina, it pained me to hear my student’s names butchered by teachers all the time, to the point of making a name unintelligible to the children. Due to mispronunciation, many immigrant parents decide to give their children Anglo names that are easier to say in the U.S. Once again, the poem “Unforgettable” by Pages Matam, Elizabeth Acevedo, and G. Yamazawa comes to mind: “That’s because my name wasn’t given to me. It was given to the rest of the country.”
The anglicizing of names or the use of nicknames to make a teacher’s life easier devalues their students’ heritage, their mother tongue, and their culture. It promotes assimilation and it sends the early message that because their names are “difficult,” they and their heritage must be difficult to appreciate as well.
As an educator, I challenge you to ask yourself:
Why is an Indigenous, Arabic, Hispanic, Chinese or Nigerian name more difficult to pronounce than Dostoevsky or Eisenhower?
I invite you to sit in this discomfort and maybe reflect on the way you’ve been conditioned to push the mainstream in your classroom. What are the non-English names or last names you’ve been conditioned to value and respect? Which ones are not? Why?
I love what actress Uzo Aduba’s mother told her when she wanted to change her name because people kept mispronouncing it, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky, and Michelangelo, and Dostoevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.” Aduba had great advice for all the girls listening to her Glamour magazine talk, “Do not ever erase those identifiers that are held in you. [Your name] is yours and it was given to you at birth and it is yours to own.”
How to Do Better
Seek out information that can help you honor your students’ names. Teaching Tolerance has a great learning plan called What’s in a Name. The organization’s My Name, My Identity campaign has more information about the social, psychological and educational outcomes tied to pronouncing students’ names correctly. You can even take a pledge to respect students’ names.
The best way to get your students’ names right is to ask them directly. What I personally do with my young students is ask, “How do they call you at home?” The moment you become vulnerable by admitting that you might need help with the pronunciation and that you have decided to honor your student’s name by trying to pronounce it correctly is a moment of humanization for both of you. You create rapport, a bridge of understanding between you and your student. You also model a long-life learner’s actions: a person who is unafraid of acknowledging they don’t know everything, that they can make mistakes but that nevertheless, they’ll try their best.
What matters here is the impact this will have on your students’ perception of their own identity through your eyes. If you have a large number of names to learn, you can write phonetic notes by your students’ names on your class rosters. Doing this has helped me in the past.
When you know better, you do better. Think about it; for some students, you might be the only person on campus trying to honor their name. By modeling the correct pronunciation, you also encourage the rest of the class and maybe the rest of the school to honor and celebrate their names.
As Audre Lorde said, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
How are you going to celebrate your students’ differences today? You can start by honoring and celebrating their names.