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.’

Pastoral care at a distance
has always been a challenge
for USPG and the Church

‘Pastoral Care across space and time’ … the theme for this year’s Bray Day organised by USPG and SPCK today

Patrick Comerford

Bray Day – the anniversary of the death of Thomas Bray on 15 February 1730 – is marked as Founder’s Day by the two Anglican agencies he was instrumental in founding: USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) and SPCK (Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge).

Bray Day is being marked by both societies this evening (15 February 2021) with an online Founders Day organised by USPG and SPCK.

Over the last year, churches have wrestled with the question: How is pastoral and spiritual care given remotely, at a distance? It’s a question that has been asked before. Indeed, it lies at the heart of USPG and what it means to be a global mission agency.

This Bray Day, USPG is releasing a digital archive, an online exhibition of sources and letters from the time of the society’s foundation. This is the result of work undertaken over the last year by USPG in collaboration with scholars at the University of Leeds, exploring themes of pastoral care in USPG’s archive.

This work focusses on letters exchanged between missionaries in North America and the Caribbean and the society’s headquarters in London. It sheds light on the concerns and issues of pastoral caregiving in the society’s early work as SPG (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel).

Pastoral caregiving remains a critical part of the global work of USPG particularly in the context of Covid-19. This evening will provide a rich exploration of the connections between the past and the present.

The speakers this evening are:

● Bishop Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury
● Dr Alison Searle, University of Leeds
● Dr Jo Sadgrove, USPG

The Revd Thomas Bray (1658-1730) … founder of SPG (now USPG) and SPCK, died on 15 February 1730

The Revd Dr Thomas Bray (1658-1730), an Anglican priest who spent time in Maryland as a missionary, was the founder of both the SPG (now USPG) and SPCK, is commemorated on 15 February in the calendar of the Church of England and several Churches in the Anglican Communion, including the Episcopal Church.

Thomas Bray was born into a humble Shropshire family in 1658 in Marton, near Chirbury, the son of Richard and Mary Bray. The house on Martin Crest is now known as Bray’s Tenement.

The local bishop took notice of young Thomas and felt that with his bright mind he should receive a good education. The bishop sponsored him and paid for his education. Bray was educated at Oswestry School, matriculated at All Souls’ College, Oxford, as a ‘poor boy’ on 12 March 1675, and graduated BA in 1678. He later received the degrees MA (1693), BD and DD (1696).

Thomas Bray was ordained priest in 1682, and he was curate at Bridgnorth before becoming a private chaplain and then Vicar of Over Whitacre and, from 1690-1695, Rector of Saint Giles, Sheldon, in Warwickshire, in the Diocese of Lichfield. There he wrote his Catechetical Lectures, which was dedicated to William Lloyd, Bishop of Lichfield. While he was in Warwickshire, he married is first wife, Eleanor.

Bray appears to have been widowed by 1695, when the Bishop of London, Henry Compton, appointed him as his commissary to organise the struggling Anglican presence in the colony of Maryland.

But his visit to Maryland was long delayed by legal complications, and during that delay, the widowed Thomas Bray married Agnes Sayers of Saint Martin’s-in-the-Fields in Lincoln’s Inn Chapel, Holborn, in 1698.

Bray eventually set sail for America in 1699 for his first and only visit. Although he spent only 10 weeks in Maryland, Bray was deeply concerned about the neglected state of the Church in America and the great need for the education of the clergy, the laity people and children.

He radically reorganised and renewed the Church in Maryland, providing for the instruction of children and the systematic examination of candidates for pastoral positions. He also took a great interest in colonial missions, especially among the Native Americans.

At a general visitation of the clergy in Annapolis before his return to England, he emphasised the need for the instruction of children and insisted that no clergyman be given a charge unless he had a good report from the ship he came over in, ‘whether … he gave no matter of scandal, and whether he did constantly read prayers twice a day and catechise and preach on Sundays, which, notwithstanding the common excuses, I know can be done by a minister of any zeal for religion.’

As a result of his visit to Maryland, he proposed a successful scheme for establishing parish libraries in England and America. Bray’s vision was for a library in each parish in America, funded by booksellers and stocked with books donated by authors. These libraries were to encourage the spread of the Anglicanism in the colonies, and were primarily composed of theological works. It was a major endeavour, as at the time the only other public libraries in the American colonies were at a small number of universities.

Back in England, Bray raised money for missionary work and influenced young Anglican priests to go to America. But his efforts to secure the consecration of a bishop for America were unsuccessful.

In England, he also wrote and preached in defence of the rights of enslaved Africans, and of Indians deprived of their land. He worked for the reform of prison conditions, and establishing preaching missions to prisoners. He persuaded General James Oglethorpe to found a colony in Georgia for the settlement of debtors as an alternative to debtors’ prison.

In response to his experiences, Bray was instrumental in establishing both SPCK in 1699 and SPG in 1701.

From 1706 until his death in 1730, he was Vicar of Saint Botolph Without, Aldgate, London, where he continued his philanthropic and literary pursuits. He served the parish with energy and devotion, while continuing his efforts on behalf of African slaves in America and in founding parish libraries.

By the time he died on 15 February 1730 at the age of 74, Bray had succeeded in establishing 80 libraries in England and Wales and 39 in America.

Writing in the current edition of the USPG Prayer Diary, Dr Jo Sadgrove, one of this evening’s speakers, says pastoral care remains ‘a critical concern to USPG.’
She writes: ‘Examining the connections between the original SPG story and the present work of the Society reveals a continuous thread of innovation in pastoral caregiving. This influences USPG’s thinking about its unique mission and role in a global crisis, and ensures that the founding ideals of Thomas Bray and his contemporaries are kept alive.’

Thomas Bray was Vicar of Saint Botolph Without, Aldgate, London, from 1706 until his death in 1730 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)