“Yeah, my English name is Kevin.”
Sorry, what? English name? Before I started high school I did not even realize that those were a thing. It wasn’t until my Iranian optometrist told my dad and I that he goes by the name Kevin at his place of work to avoid issues with pronunciation that I started to think about it.
How many people of colour did I know with white-sounding names? Were they all hiding their real names after moving to Canada? But why?
Growing up, I often found that I would have to repeat my name several times to my classmates and teachers at my predominantly Caucasian elementary school.
“No, like, su-keh-na.”
“N- actually, yeah, sure, you got it.”
Most of my educational and professional life has been spent hearing multiple incorrect pronunciations of my name, and I never really thought much of it until I got older. I would always introduce myself to people who weren’t brown with the Anglo-fied pronunciation of my name without any hesitation. Now I wonder why I did it. Why didn’t I teach my friends, teachers and colleagues how to say my name the right way? Why did I feel the need to conform? I guess for one of the same reasons that other people change their names altogether.
Kevin the optometrist changed his name after the September 11 terrorist attack on New York City to avoid any unwarranted questions or appalling remarks. He felt that his real name posed a risk to his safety, as Islamophobia and racism were on the rise in Canada at that time as well. People of colour from all sorts of backgrounds change their names for this reason along with many others, including issues of pronounciation, or even just to fit in. A study by the Harvard Business School has even shown that employers are twice as likely to call minority applicants in for interviews when they have a white-sounding name on their application.
This might seem like just a small issue to some, but it really stands out to me. I find it so unfair that it’s a norm for people to change the names they were born with in order to avoid prejudice, be treated fairly or to make it easier for others to say their name. People move here and adapt to learning and speaking a whole new language yet still get called out for having an accent, but change their names so that the people making fun of them can be comfortable in taking their name during the ridiculing.
Why do we do this? If people can learn new languages, learn how to say words like anemone, onomatopoeia and February, pronounce names such as Jeremiah and Isla, then why can’t we teach them to pronounce our names as well? We just accept the mispronunciations or change ourselves to adhere to the standards of others.
I think it’s high time that we change how we go about sharing our lives with others in this country. It’s hard enough to just be a person of colour in today’s society, we might as well get people to learn how to say our names right. It’s tough to deal with the confused faces and the “sorry, can you repeat that?” but I know we can do it. It’s a small, seemingly unnecessary step, but at least it’s something in the right direction.
This spoken word poem “If They Can Pronounce Shakespeare” courtesy of Bankstown Poetry Slam on YouTube really brings the point home!
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