Introducing myself to others for the first time is always stressful. I pose an internal battle with every first-time interaction: Should I pronounce my name the ethnic way, or go about making it easier for other people? Are their mistakes even worth correcting? Or should I just carry on with my day? These are questions that, without fail, always cross my mind.
As an Arab, I have experienced firsthand the burdens of my name being mispronounced, misheard or misunderstood by those around me. However, this is not an issue that is unique to the Arab experience. Many minorities face similar burdens, whether that be at work, school or even in casual settings with peers who don’t hold the same ethnic identity as them. However, all is the same: intentionally mispronouncing, or poking fun at people’s ethnic names is a form of casual racism that promotes the superiority of white people and western ideals.
On a rudimentary level, our names are the foundations of our identity. From the moment we are born, our names give people the ability to identify us. Everybody is given a name, so why is there a higher regard of respect held for some people and not others? Consistent mispronunciation of someone’s name can be detrimental to their self-esteem and self-worth, as many minorities often feel forced to reduce the true pronunciation of their name to an abridged version for the comfort of their white peers. 77% of immigrants even drop their ethnic name within their first year in the United States. I have witnessed this firsthand, living in a predominantly Arab and Muslim community for my entire life. Similarly, in school settings, students are often ridiculed in the classroom for their “uncommon” or “weird sounding” names, telling teachers and peers to refer to them as nicknames, or even allowing mispronunciations so as not to cause a distraction in class. In the workforce, people with white-sounding names are 50% more likely to get an interview for jobs than individuals with Black or Hispanic-sounding names. Minority groups with “different-sounding” names are forced to change one of the most defining factors of their identity in order to be considered for a job, regardless of their qualifications. This is one of many struggles that some may never bear the burden of.
Identity politics play a large role in communities of color. While reflecting on this, I ask, where does our comfort come into play? Why should we be focused on the comfort of others, when the same act makes us uncomfortable? Why should we apologize for our ethnic and culturally significant names just because they aren’t considerate of somebody else’s discomfort? Why am I forced to be apologetically me?
As I write this, I am calling myself out. My name is Yasmine. It has seven letters, two syllables and is relatively cross-cultural and common. However, people still pronounce it incorrectly — even after repeatedly introducing myself in the way I prefer. Derived from Arabic origins, I take pride in the history of my name and my culture. But regardless of my pride and efforts to stay true to my roots, I am defeated. I constantly am torn between introducing myself lazily as yaz-mean instead of proudly as yes-mean (or, in Arabic, ياسمين).
Prior to attending the University of Michigan, I came from a predominantly homogenous community of Arabs and Muslims who have names and identities that are as ethnically diverse as mine. Where I come from, I have never felt “othered” in regards to my identity. As a child of two Lebanese immigrants, I have grown up watching my parents have issues with their names being “too ethnic” or having to endure wrong pronunciations for the sake of assimilating to American norms. My dad has gone as far as to change his name legally due to the hyper-political connotation of his name, Jihad, after informally going by “Jay” for years. This experience is not unique to my dad. It’s a common experience in Arab communities for fathers to have a more white, “American” sounding alias at their jobs, such as Mike instead of Mohammad, or Sam, instead of Osamah. Similarly, there have been countless occasions where my Arab friends have changed their names in settings where they believe it will be mispronounced, such as ordering a drink at a coffee shop, or introducing themselves to new people at social events. These collective experiences are cross-cultural, intergenerational, and persistent in American culture.
Today, I hope to begin my own journey in reclaiming my identity by demanding the respect of my peers and putting some respect on my name. And I hope you do too.
If while reading this piece, you believe you have perpetuated this form of casual racism, I implore you to combat it. Here are two easy solutions:
- Simply, ask. Double check with your peers if you are pronouncing their name correctly, really make an effort to remember and fix your mistakes if needed. Making a conscious effort is just the first step, so don’t feel embarrassed to ask.
- Be conscious of your cognitive biases. Would you continually make the mistake of incorrectly pronouncing your white peers’ names? Even if it was “hard” to pronounce? Or would you make the effort? I ask you to keep the same energy for the people of color in your life as well.
MiC Columnist Yasmine Elkharssa can be reached at email@example.com.