And then, I heard the infamous pause — the pause indicating that my name was next on the roster. That was my cue to make my presence known and save my teacher the hassle of attempting to pronounce my name.
As a Pakistani-American, this situation is all too familiar. It has become a joke amongst my peers, who are also minorities, because of how often this occurs. There is no expectation to get our names right on the first try, or even the third. It is understandable to have trouble saying a name that seems unfamiliar. However, issues arise when people lack the decency to make an effort to understand the correct pronunciation.
I have encountered many types of teachers, and they all respond differently in these situations. Some attempt to say my name, realize their mistake, and then correct themselves. Others take a deep breath or let out a slight laugh before looking around the room in hopes that someone will relieve them. Sometimes, a teacher will settle for a mixture, combining the actual pronunciation with their take on it. This I do not mind because they clearly realize it is their fault, not mine. Lastly, there are a few teachers who remain convinced that their pronunciation is right and do not bother to fix themselves, even after I correct them.
Unfortunately, I am able to recall numerous instances when I have had to succumb to the feeling of being “less than" or “unimportant" due to people simply not caring enough to learn my name. Not only is this disrespectful response belittling, but it is also an act of bigotry.
To some, I may seem overly sensitive, but name mispronunciation is actually a form of intolerance called racial microaggression. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, racial microaggressions fall under the category of “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color."
The greatest danger of microaggression is the fact that it often goes unnoticed by the aggressor. Regardless of the aggressor’s intention, the underlying message being communicated is that the name is strange, foreign, and not worth the energy it requires to pronounce it correctly. This not only makes the victim feel insignificant, but it also devalues their culture and marginalizes them.
So, how can teachers prevent these subtle, yet impactful, injustices? For starters, they should make an effort to communicate with the student directly and learn the right way to say their name. By admitting that they made a mistake, they are able to create a stronger bond with the student, eventually resulting in a more comfortable environment. Teachers can also make name tags if necessary, or they can write out the phonetic spelling on the roster.
However, this should not only apply to the classroom setting. This effort should always be made, regardless of the location or situation. Whether it is someone you are on the phone with, an employee, or a person you just met, taking the time to learn the correct pronunciation is crucial.
Our names are our identities, and disregarding the importance of a name lessens the importance of a person.
Call me by my name — not by what is easier for you. Not by a nickname you made. Not by a pause or a mumble or the wave of your hand. If you can learn to say Arnold Schwarzenegger and Zach Galifianakis, you can take the time to learn Zyva Sheikh.
“A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language."
- Dale Carnegie