Picture an 8-year-old dark skinned African girl with big, bright round-shaped eyes and an infectious smile. She is excited to learn and eager to start her school year. On the first day of school, she sits at her desk, hands perfectly clasped atop her composition notebook waiting for her teacher to call her name for attendance. This little girl is ready to say, “here!” in a clear and proud voice. She’s ready, that is until it happens. The teacher calls attendance, hurrying through her list of names allowing them to roll off her tongue like a drop of dew glides down a leaf after morning sunlight. All things are going smoothly, and then she stops while staring down at her list. Her face tells a story mixed with confusion and annoyance. That little girl was me. At that moment, my heart sank. I knew that my teacher had reached my name and was going to say a word that sounded nothing like my name.

african girl, smile, happy, school

I raise my hand and offer the correct pronunciation of my name without any expectation that she will try to repeat after me or practice saying it correctly. I sit there and accept that for the rest of the school year, I would have a name that was something other than what my mother’s love intended for me. I made myself small for my teacher’s comfort. For the other teachers that year and for many years to follow, I would continue to shrink for their convenience. I let them tell me that my name is too insignificant to learn to pronounce, and in essence, I accept that I am not valued, that my heretiage and culture are not worthy of respect.

          My mother, on the other hand, has never allowed people to say my name incorrectly. For her, this isn’t just a name it’s her baby and her baby’s identity. She is passing on a sense of pride in who we are as a people complete with our values and cherished customs. While I may have shrunk for others when I was a child, I have since learned to stand tall in who I am, thanks to my mother. Now, I pause when someone attempts to say my name, and when they say it wrong, I correct them. When they try to stab me with one of their microaggressions, “Oh, that’s hard to say, can I just call you…” I casually take a deep breath and politely repeat the pronunciation of my name because it’s important. Because it matters. Because I matter.

 

          As an adult, it’s frustrating to have others remove the valued gift that my mother gave me when she first looked into my eyes. As she gazed upon her firstborn child, she selected a name for me that expressed her belief in me based on , “God is with us.” It is a name that is related to my culture and tied to my identity as an African. So, when people make assumptions of the origin of my name, when they devalue the importance of its spelling or refuse to stop, listen and pronounce it correctly, they are trying to steal my identity from me – and it’s not okay. It is also not okay that teachers are still doing this to children 25 years later. I am here to help this cycle of disrespect stop.

 

Put Some Respect on that Name

After reading this blog did you think of instances where you committed this or a similar microaggression? Alternatively, did you think of a time when you thought it was better to shrink away or allow your child to shrink to make someone else comfortable? Have you ever told yourself, oh, I guess it’s not that big of a deal when someone insisted on mispronouncing your name? It is a big deal. Here are simple tips to make sure that you show children that they are valued:

 

  • Ask caregivers to send the phonetic spelling their child’s name
  • Ask the child to say their name slowly so you can write it in a way that is easy for you to remember the pronunciation
  • Ask for feedback when saying their name to ensure that you are saying it correctly
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