What’s in a name? Quite a bit, actually

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“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” 

We’re all likely familiar with the words from William Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet.” In this scene, Juliet laments that Romeo’s name is Montague and hers is Capulet, and argues names are not significant to someone’s identity. 

This is something I would have to disagree with; names do matter, but people don’t always realize this. Many people have been at the butt-end of jokes or artificial apologies when their names are mispronounced. 

You know if you’ve experienced this. You’ve heard the “Oh, I’m not even going to try to say it because I’ll just butcher it.” When you correct them you hear “whatever” or an indignant “That’s what I said!” Or maybe if you correct them, they’ll still continue to mispronounce it. Sometimes they’ll go so far as to make fun of it. You know whether or not you’ve heard these comments; they often hurt and make the situation uncomfortable. 

“Oh, I’m not even going to try to say it because I’ll just butcher it.”

And people may claim that I’m being “oversensitive” about this. I’m not; this is actually a form of microaggression which especially targets those of non-White European descent who do not have “White European” names. Dr. Ranjana Srinivasan, who has done work on name-based microaggressions, said those who do not have classic “White European” names often face name-based microaggressions in the forms of the assignment of an unwanted nickname, biases about a person solely based on their name as well as teasing from peers and educators. 

Sound familiar? To many, this is something that we’ve had to live with since we were little. We’d always know when the substitute teacher was going to call our names from the attendance list because of the hesitation. We’re accustomed to responding to almost every variation of our names. We’re so used to it that by the time we get to high school and college, it barely bothers us. But this should not be the case. 

Names often represent people’s culture or heritage and generally have a great deal of significance to them. When people’s names are mispronounced or made fun of, it is damaging in multiple ways. Especially in school-aged children, it could easily be damaging to a child’s mental health. 

A relatively easy way to think about how name-based microaggressions affect children can be seen through a famous children’s book, “Chrysanthemum,” by Kevin Henkes. The protagonist, Chrysanthemum, loves her name until she goes to school and other students constantly make fun of her for being named after a flower and for having such a long name. Chrysanthemum becomes increasingly saddened by what her classmates tell her about her name, and by the end of the first day of school, she wishes she were named something else. Although this is not a racial, cultural or ethnic-based microaggression, Henkes makes it clear that Chrysanthemum is being bullied for her name. 

Apply it to real life: Instead of having a really long name, it is a similar concept for children with names that don’t fit the “White European” category previously mentioned. Many of these children are made fun of and bullied for their names, and are filled with comparable emotions to what Chrysanthemum faced. 

The way to avoid these name-based microaggressions is actually simple. If you have trouble pronouncing someone’s name, ask them how to say it. I know that I, personally, would rather be asked numerous times how to pronounce my name instead of hearing “Oh, it’s too hard, I don’t want to mess it up” or “Do you have a nickname instead?” 

If you pronounce someone’s name incorrectly, remember to apologize sincerely, not a passive-aggressive, artificial “Oh I’m sorry your name is so long” kind of apology. A sincere apology with a promise to do better is necessary. 

And to everyone whose name gets mispronounced: Work on correcting people. I know this is something I’ve struggled with, but the truth is your name is unique and special to you. It likely has some significance and people should learn to pronounce it correctly. Don’t be afraid to tell someone how it’s actually pronounced. 

Moving away from these name-based microaggressions will make the environment around us much more welcoming, and it will eliminate a certain amount of bullying that some people, especially younger children, face. It is important to recognize this is a microaggression and understand that the way that people treat names they are not familiar with needs to change. 

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