The care we take to get names right is increasingly under scrutiny as Kamala Harris takes office. What message do we send when we get them wrong?

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Canadian radio host Nana aba Duncan decided a decade ago she no longer wanted to go by nicknames and instead reclaim her full Ghanaian name, pronounced Nuh-NAA-buh. She put a name pronouncer in her email signature, and patiently corrected people when they didn’t get it quite right. She got a lot of support – but she also still faces struggles. 

A woman at a party insisted she could never pronounce Duncan’s full first name, laughing instead at how different it was and asking where she was from. “She really, really acted like I had just come from another country… I really felt like I was so foreign to her,” says Duncan, who has lived in Toronto for more than 40 years. At another get-together, a guest explained that her name was hard to pronounce and unilaterally reverted to ‘Nana’ instead. Then there was the co-worker who sang Duncan’s name to the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: “Na-Na-Na-BAAAAAA.” No one else’s name became a musical spectacle, just hers. 

“I feel like I'm a spoil sport if I say, ‘actually, I don't think that's funny’,” says Duncan, 43. “I hate that I don't put myself first in those moments, but sometimes I think we do this to keep the peace because there are so many other things that we have to deal with and we just let those things go.” 

Xian Zhao, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on ethnic name pronunciation, says that although many people don’t realise it, habitually pronouncing an unfamiliar name incorrectly is a form of implicit discrimination. It sends a message that “you are minimal”, says Zhao. “You are not important in this environment, so why should I take time and my effort to learn it?”

I hate that I don't put myself first in those moments – Nana aba Duncan

Yet the care we take to get names right is a topic increasingly under scrutiny as Kamala Harris takes office in the US. Harris, the first female, black and Asian American to serve as US vice-president, has faced consistent mispronunciations of her name. In some cases, they present as apparently wilful errors used to suggest ‘otherness’, or draw attention to her ethnicity. Harris has made a point of correcting mispronunciations publicly, sending an important signal that there’s no excuse for failing to master names – and serving as a role model for those who want to reclaim their identities. 

The subtle signalling of names 

Changing one’s name to fit in happens more often than some may think, especially on resumés. According to research from Stanford University and the University of Toronto, nearly half of black and Asian job applicants who altered their resumés did so by changing the presentation of their name in an effort to erase any racial cues. (The researchers found those who “whitened” their resumés were twice as likely to get call-backs for an interview, compared to those who left ethnic details intact.)

Nana aba Duncan decided to reclaim her name – but some people still mispronounce it (Credit: Dewey Chang)

Nana aba Duncan decided to reclaim her name – but some people still mispronounce it (Credit: Dewey Chang)

Some also use nicknames or Anglicised names in professional or social environments. Zhao’s recent research showed that about half of Chinese international students surveyed who attend US universities had adopted Anglicised versions of their given names to make it easier for others to pronounce them. But this can have consequences: Zhao says he uncovered a pattern showing the use of an ‘Anglo’ name is associated with lower levels of self-esteem, which can also be an indicator for lower levels of health and wellbeing. 

There are also those who use their real names, only to have people repeatedly mispronounce them. “[Getting names wrong] can go under the radar for a lot of individuals. Other people can see it as, ‘oh, it's not that big of a deal’,” says Myles Durkee, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who specialises in race, identity and cultural code-switching. “What makes it detrimental is the chronic pattern of doing this consistent mispronunciation. And the ripple effects from that are much more adverse, signalling to the individual that they're less important, that they're less valued.” 

In Harris’ case, Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s angry on-air rant and then-Georgia Senator David Perdue’s remarks to Donald Trump supporters sparked the most debate. When a guest tried to correct Carlson’s mispronunciation of “Kamala” on air in August, the TV host (whose cable newscast was averaging more than four million viewers each night at the time) responded with, “So what?” and mispronounced it again several times. Perdue, who made a joke of repeatedly stumbling on Harris’s name at an October rally, knows Harris well. They were in the US Senate together for more than three years, and he served alongside her on the 21-member Senate Budget Committee before losing the Georgia US Senate run-off election earlier this month. 

Carlson said his mispronunciation was “unintentional”, while a spokeswoman for Perdue said he “didn't mean anything by it”. But Durkee refers to these types of actions as “micro-invalidations” and when they’re unequivocally prejudiced, “micro-assaults”. “Micro-assaults are much more explicit, intentional forms of discrimination or disrespect. Strategically mispronouncing someone's name is a way of othering someone.” 

The Hollywood effect

Many of these reasons drive why many high-profile figures aren’t letting go of mispronunciations. Perdue’s behaviour sparked the #MyNameIs social media campaign in which participants shared their name’s origin and meaning. Hollywood actors Kumail Nanjiani and Kal Penn were among those who participated.

But the issue was already rumbling before Harris’ candidacy; in 2019, American comedian Hasan Minhaj, who often discussed his Indian-Muslim background on his Netflix show Patriot Act, used his appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to correct the TV host on her pronunciation of his name: “If you can pronounce Ansel Elgort, you can pronounce Hasan Minhaj.” The clip has been viewed more than four million times on his Twitter page. 

“When the name is mispronounced, it's become very acceptable to not let it go,” says Sue Obeidi, director of the Hollywood bureau for the US Muslim Public Affairs Council. “That's definitely something we didn't see even five years ago.” Los Angeles-based Obeidi and her team advise TV and film production staff on shows including Grey’s Anatomy, Transplant, Looming Tower and Aladdin on how to create more authentic storylines involving Muslim characters. She says although there was a time when a complicated name might have been the butt of a joke on screen, lead characters such as Transplant’s Dr Bashir Hamed and Ramy’s Ramy Hassan are helping normalise what was previously perceived as ‘too exotic’.

Kumail Nanjiani is one of several high-profile figures who joined the #MyNameIs social media campaign (Credit: Alamy)

Kumail Nanjiani is one of several high-profile figures who joined the #MyNameIs social media campaign (Credit: Alamy)

Obeidi also credits the increasingly unapologetic approach to names by well-known personalities – including Orange Is The New Black’s Uzo Aduba and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o ­ as a catalyst for change, while Durkee says comedians in particular, who can be “blunt” without being perceived as “hostile”, are bringing new-found awareness to the conversation. “This moment is potent,” says Obeidi. “I don't think people are going to take the easy way out like they did. I think the industry writers and directors, they're going to maybe even go out of their way to pick harder names for characters.” 

‘Gives people confidence’ 

These kinds of shifts – whether in Hollywood writing rooms or at the centre of the federal government – can influence the conversation in workplaces, too. It’s important, says Durkee, for employers to ask new hires their preferred name, especially if they introduce themselves with a different name to the one on their resumé. And if someone witnesses the name being mispronounced regularly by others, colleagues and supervisors should step in to correct them. 

For colleagues, keeping a phonetic reminder is a good way of remembering a name you haven’t heard before, he adds. Otherwise, getting it wrong over and over in this climate “could be a blatant or explicit message to the individual that they're not a normative member of that environment or that setting”. 

Duncan, the Canadian radio host, says she’s noticed subtle changes around her. She overhears colleagues double-checking the names of on-air guests, and says even junior staff seem comfortable correcting someone if their name is said wrong. Duncan went by ‘Nana’ at school to make it easier for other people and to avoid the anxiety caused by having to correct them. But as she got older, ‘Nana’ no longer sat well with her. Her parents, who came of age around Ghanaian independence in the 1950s, gave her a traditional name to honour their own culture; amending it felt like a betrayal. Seeing someone like Harris take pride in her name and refuse to be cast as un-American because of it has been a valuable example. 

“There are so many different coping mechanisms that those of us have with uncommon names and then added onto that, those of us who are people of colour, those of us who are black and come from African countries, who are immigrants,” says Duncan. “When you watch a woman do what you wish you could do or handle a situation in a way that honours herself, it gives people confidence, and I think it gives them the tools to do the same.”