I have been thinking about names lately, and the power they possess in realizing a person’s humanity. A pinnacle chant at Black Lives Matter protests across the country is “Say Their Name”. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Elijah McClain.
I am also reminded of names as I have to introduce myself frequently when meeting new people on campus or via Zoom.
My name has been deemed by people as “hard.” “Your name is too hard, I just won’t say it,” people say after I try correcting them. “Can I call you Addy?” No, you can’t. “Do you have a nickname?” Yes, Rónkẹ́. “I’m just gonna call you Ron.” No, you won’t. I have many other instances of people finding anything else to call me, except for the name bestowed to me by my parents. I even share this problem with Vice President Kamala Harris.
Her prominent role in society has brought to light how mispronunciations of names can be overtly and covertly racist. Purposely mispronouncing a name can attach an “otherness” to the person with that name, which has been used politically to fuel distrust towards politicians of color. In personal interactions, saying a name incorrectly, making a joke of it or asking for alternatives can be racial microaggressions. While people of any background can have their name mispronounced, we should consider the unequal efforts between correctly pronouncing unusual white names versus non-Eurocentric names. Why can someone pronounce Ansel Elgort’s name, but not Hasan Minaj?
Pronouncing names correctly matters: it impacts people’s self-confidence and identification with their cultures. It can even affect academic performance as students whose names are perpetually mispronounced can feel invisible in the classroom and thus disengaged from lessons. Teachers taking the time to learn how to properly say a student’s name sets the student up for classroom success.
I’ve noticed some of these effects in my own life. In fifth grade, I stopped correcting people on my name because a teacher said, “I don’t like it when students try to correct teachers”. So I was scared to correct her, and other people, about my name. This led to my name consistently being mispronounced by almost everyone I interacted with for the majority of my life. While my academics fared well, my self-esteem and connection to my culture diminished.
Only after a life-changing trip to Nigeria — one Yale Undergraduate Admissions is familiar with — did I gain the courage to correct people on my name. While there, no one made a fuss about how “hard” it was to pronounce my name; they just said it.
I pondered: Is my name hard? No. My name is not hard. People are not used to the vowel tones that come with my name because my name is not Standard American English nor a common non-English name. And that is okay. Most people I encounter were not born or raised in a Yoruba Nigerian household. Even some second-generation Americans of Yoruba descent — people whose parents are Nigerian immigrants but who were born and raised in America, like me — have trouble pronouncing my name because they are better versed in English than in Yoruba.
And I want you to know: your name isn’t hard, either. I remember another student saying, “I understand teaching people my name because my name is hard too.” But her name wasn’t hard. It was a beautiful Korean name that her parents gave to her because it had so much meaning to them. My parents did the same thing for me. Why should we apologize for it?
My name means “the crown is to be pampered” or “the crown is precious”. The “Adé” means “crown” and comes from my family lineage of being descended from tribal royalty. The “Rónkẹ́” means “precious or pampered” comes from me being the long-awaited girl — and objectively best child out of my parents’ four children — my parents wanted. When you refuse to say my name and push it off as “too hard”, you disrespect my family, my culture and my humanity.
So all I ask is that you try. When you see me or another person with an uncommon name, instead of avoiding their name like the coronavirus, try to say it. You probably will not get it on the first try; you may not even get it on the second, third or fourth try. But the fact that you are trying shows that you see me and appreciate the rich history and culture that comes with my name.
For people with non-English or non-common names, do not stop correcting people when they mispronounce your name. Keep teaching people until they get it right, because you deserve the dignity, the respect and the humanity given by people saying your name right.
So you will say my name. And you will say it right.
ADERONKE ADEJARE is a first-year in Saybrook College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can learn how to pronounce her name by following these links: https://www.names.org/n/aderonke/about#pronunciation and https://www.names.org/n/adejare/about#pronunciation.