15 February 2021

Every time a surname is
mispronounced, it signals
disrespect or even racism

Respecting the origins of a surname challenges and rejects ‘racial microaggression’

Patrick Comerford

During the impeachment trial in the US Senate last week, members of Trump’s legal team fumbled a number of words and with purpose and intention mispronounced the Vice-President’s name.

At one point, Michael Van der Veen confused ‘resurrection’ with ‘insurrection,’ called the Massachusetts Democrat Ayanna Pressley ‘Anya,’ mispronounced Vice-President Kamala Harris’s first name, and referred to Georgia’s Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, as ‘Ben Roeffensberger,’ and ‘Ben Rothenberg’ and even ‘Ben Roethlisberger.’

David Perdue spent three years in the Senate with Kamala Harris, and they worked together on the Budget Committee. But, during the election campaign, the Republican from Georgia stood in front of a cheering and jeering crowd of Trump supporters and called her ‘Ka-mal-a, Comma-la, Ka-Mala-mala-mala.’

He was saying not that he did not know how to pronounce her name, but that it does not matter. These were intentional, calculated acts of disrespect, with thinly disguised undertones of racism.

Mocking the Vice-President’s first name — which means ‘lotus’ in Sanskrit — has become prevalent among Republicans. Trump called her ‘Comma-la’ and ‘Ka-MAL-a’ at rallies too.

When Perdue was challenged, he deflected from the problem and instead responded, ‘A lot of Democrats will do or say anything right now to hide their radical, socialist agenda.’

When a guest corrected Tucker Carlson of Fox News on how he pronounced her name, he seemed affronted at the suggestion that he was showings disrespect. After a few more attempts, he brushed it aside with a ‘whatever.’

The frequent mispronunciations of her name, and the names of other candidates, is not simply a matter of confusion. It is often intended to create the image they are different, foreign or in some way un-American.

Nor is it coincidental. It is not only planned, but Trump encouraged his supporters and his crowds to do the same, are playing to the ignorance, the racism, and the xenophobia of his support base. Yet, this same president refused to countenance anyone changing the name of racist Confederate generals and slaveholders being removed from US military bases. And I cannot remember anyone calling Donald John Trump ‘Ronald McTrump.’

The Washington Democrat Pramila Jayapal had her name mispronounced regularly by her Republican opponent, Craig Keller, who insisted on calling her ‘Jail-a-pal,’ even after she asked him to correct himself.

Vice-President Harris was born in the US, the daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother. But some Republicans continue to suggest — as they did with former President Barack Obama — that her background means she cannot serve as president.

Some politicians Anglicise their names in order to avoid the issue. In South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who was born Nimrata Randhawa, told the Charlotte Observer she shortened her name because it ‘wouldn’t fit on a yard sign.’

President Obama was sometimes the subject of mockery because of his name. A Republican congress member forwarded an email referring to his wife as ‘Mrs YoMama.’ At rallies, Trump has referred to ‘Barack Hussein Obama,’ giving extra emphasis to ‘Hussein.’

In a similar way, throughout the Senate trial last week and before that during the election campaign, Trump and his Republicans insisted on referring to the ‘Democrat Party’ instead of the Democratic Party, robbing the party of its Democratic credentials and credibility.

Jayapal was ‘so peeved’ by Perdue’s mispronunciations that she hosted an Instagram live discussion on the importance of correctly saying other people’s names.

The hashtag #MyNameIs began spreading on Twitter as people tweeted their own names along with their meanings and, in some cases, their experiences with those who did not try to learn them.

The hashtag was started by Parag Mehta, former chief of staff to the US surgeon general, and his husband, Vaibhav Jain. Stories were shared by Pramila Jayapal, Hiral Tipirneni, who is Indian American, retired figure skater Michelle Kwan, actor Patton Oswalt and Kamala Harris’s sister Maya and niece Meena.

The problem is not limited to politics. Rita Kohli, an education professor at the University of California at Riverside, says the wilful mispronunciation of someone’s name, especially one reflecting their cultural background, qualifies as a ‘racial microaggression.’ She speaks of a ‘deprofessionalisation and othering.’

Making an effort to learn somebody’s name shows respect. Refusing to pronounce it properly when you know how to is not mere sarcasm and cheap humour; it is similar to schoolyard bullying and an act of passive aggression that seeks to rob away someone of than an essential part of their self-image and identity. It demeans their background and heritage.

Have you noticed that Gerry Adams constantly peppered his speeches in the Dail with Irish words and phrases that he enunciated with over-emphasis? Yet, it seems, he could never bring himself to properly pronounced the names of Fianna Fail or Fine Gael: Fail always seemed to rhyme with ‘fail’ as in ‘failure’ and Fine always seemed to rhyme with ‘wine.’

I had a line manager who for four years insisted on misplacing the emphasis on the syllables in my surname, and gave a wearied, ‘whatever’ look every time I tried to correct him, as if to say, ‘Here he goes again … Whatever.’ And he would mispronounce my name again at the next meeting.

At school, I constantly failed in my protests that there is no Irish version of my surname. It is part of my identity and my heritage, and I am proud of unbroken connection across centuries with the link provided by my surname with a small village in rural England.

People who grimaced at any mispronunciation or misspelling of Dún Laoghaire could not be bothered to inquire about the meaning of my surname. I have no problem when people spell my surname using the spelling of the name of that village. But the insistence of some people on gauche efforts to translate an English name into Irish came in the mid-1960s as the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising was part of an excuse by some people to define who was at the heart of Irish identity and who could be pushed to the margins or excluded.

The same people would be embarrassed if caught trying to do the same with family names of Lithuanian, Polish, Chinese or Nigerian origin today. So why is acceptable in Ireland to do this with family names of English origin?

Because of this experience, over half a century ago, I have some small insight into how the mispronunciation of their names may be felt today by public figures such as Kamala Harris, Brad Raffensperger and Pramila Jayapal.

But I was shrugged off with that ‘whatever’ look … and I still ended up with the contortion of Comartún on my Leaving Certificate in 1969 instead of my own surname. A generation later, when it came to my own sons’ experience in school, I had to resist their name being ‘translated into Irish’ as Mac Cumascaigh. It is a fine old Gaelic surname, dating back, perhaps, to the tenth century. But it is not the same name as Comerford, despite what is said on Dúchas, the Irish folklore website, or other websites that copy and paste from one another rather than carrying out research using primary sources.

Writing in The Irish Times last week [11 February 2021], Laura McKenny argued that names can exert control, shape identity and even obliterate history.

‘Our personal identity is inextricably linked with our name, whether or not we perceive it as a good fit,’ she wrote. ‘But names have meaning not only for own identity but for how others regard us. Make no mistake, names matter.’

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