Say my name (right)

Death by a thousand microaggressions

Sepideh Afshar Opinion Editor

At the start of every school year, my high school held a special assembly to honour seniors. Every senior was called up one by one by the principal to grab special red ties, meant to symbolize their maturity. In my last year, I was so excited for the assembly. But when it came to me, my name was mispronounced. An unsure giggle passed throughout the auditorium. I felt my cheeks get hot, and suddenly, I found myself holding back tears. While everybody else’s names were called, I stood in shame. I was utterly humiliated, but I was unsure why.

Everybody in that room knew what my name was. Why did a little slip-up matter so much? As it turns out, I had experienced something all too common—a microaggression, or a small, unconscious act of prejudice and racism. At the time, I did not know the term, but I did not need to read an academic article to know that that moment of pure mortification would stay with me. As Ratna Ghosh, a professor in the Faculty of Education at McGill, put it to me, “Because it’s not overtly racist, it has the ability to make a more important inroad into your psyche.”

Most people do not need to worry about how their names are pronounced—their names are common in the countries they live in. When I was four years old and had just immigrated to Canada from Iran—a place where my name was never an issue—I could not anticipate that it would turn out to be so challenging for those around me. But the chronic mispronunciation must have happened gradually, because by the time I realized that my name was constantly being said incorrectly, it had become a normal, even expected, occurrence.

My name became a constant reminder of my difference. Always at the top of attendance sheets, I watched new teachers mull over “Sepideh,” giving a sympathetic look to the class before attempting to string the letters together in a way that made sense to them. I developed ways of intervening: The moment a teacher picked up the attendance sheet, I would raise my hand immediately to tell them my name and state that I was present. Unfortunately, this kind of behaviour was less bravery and more a product of my embarrassment.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only person who developed these kinds of strategies as a kid. Gialina Jiang, a second-year student at Carleton University, recalled how she used to pretend the botched versions of her name were accurate to get a laugh out of her peers.

“It makes me feel guilty and sad that I needed to [resort] to humour in an uncomfortable situation to get validation from white people, as opposed to being proud of who I am, and my culture and roots,” Jiang said.

These microaggressions usually start in schools, easily the most significant social institution for youth. Chronic mispronunciation of a name is extremely harmful, according to a study done at Santa Clara University. Consequences range from internalized racism within students to negative self-perception that inhibits development. One study conducted at the University of Alberta found that students from ethnic minority groups feel disrespected when their names are mispronounced. Mispronouncing somebody’s name, even by accident, is a surefire way of wearing down a person’s sense of identity, since it minimizes the heritage and richness that goes into a name.

Ghosh maintained that a positive sense of self is crucial for an individual to have agency. The constant mispronunciation of a person’s name, like most microaggressions, slowly chips away at one’s self-perception. Unfortunately, children can be particularly affected, since they are so young.

“Little children—for them, their name is their identity,” Ghosh said.

After living among English-speakers for a while, I started to go by an alternate, Canadian pronunciation of my name. The phonetic limitations of those whose first language is English make it nearly impossible for them to pronounce my name the way somebody who speaks Persian would. I eventually chose a Canadian pronunciation I preferred: “Suh-pea-day” instead of “suh-pea-duh.” But even after anglicizing my name for the ease of others, teachers continued to mispronounce the modified version of my name for the entirety of my middle and high school years. While I tried to correct them, they only grew annoyed, tired of the interruption it caused. So I stopped. It is quite an isolating feeling to have your name be an inconvenience to those around you, especially teachers who are supposed to lead by example in the classroom.

“When you want an inclusive culture, in your school, in your classroom, you want to make it safe,” Ghosh said. “The first thing you should be able to do is pronounce a name.”

By the time I was in the eighth grade, I let teachers mispronounce my name as long as the letters were approximately in the right spots. After letting it go for so long, I was taken aback when a teacher at my high school took me aside after she realized her pronunciation wasn’t correct. She sat there, repeating my name, trying to glue it to her memory. Afterwards, she asked me to correct her if she ever made a mistake again, because, she said, it mattered. Looking back, I am so grateful. My teacher provided me with a kind of validation I had never before received in an academic setting. This marked a turning point in the way I thought about my name, because I realized that the effort I had seen from her was the kind I deserved.

Although there are definitely non-racialized people whose names get mispronounced, mispronunciation often targets people of colour. For racialized minorities, disregarding a name or not putting in the effort to learn how to say it properly is a microaggression. Ultimately, it’s about putting the same effort into learning someone’s name: People will learn how to say “Saoirse” but give up when it comes to “Taraneh.” But pointing this out can provoke defensive reactions, which is frequently the case with microaggressions. The power and the damage of microaggressions lie both in their invisibility and in their persistence.

Lavinia Auhoma, U1 Arts, wonders if people give up on getting her name right because she’s a person of colour. Ironically, her name is pulled directly from the Shakespeare play Titus Andronicus. To her, the difference is context: Though people might try to pronounce a Shakespearean name correctly, they call it a day if they perceive a name as ethnic. She has found that people even try to complicate her name or exoticize it.

“If I was white, I think that fewer people would have a hard time pronouncing my name,” Auhoma said.

Some people have told me the solution is easy: Just use a nickname. But to me, so much in a name gets lost in a shortened version. While picking up a nickname might be easier, it would strip me of a culture and a language that I love and hold very close to my heart. Negar Matin, U3 Science, agrees. She found that trying out a new name in university only led her to feel displaced.

“I didn’t like it,” Matin said. “I love that [my name] is unique and I love that it represents my origins.”

Many people, however, do decide to change their names for both external and internal reasons. Some want to feel like they belong, while others fear external discrimination. As it turns out, the fear of being discriminated against in job applications is a real one. In a study conducted at the University of Toronto, researchers investigated whether there were advantages to “résumé whitening,” meaning attempts to downplay racial cues in one’s CV. After applying to real-world job openings, the researchers found that a “whitened” résumé, representing an applicant with the name “L. James Smith,” received a call-back rate 15.5 per cent higher than a fictitious Black applicant’s unwhitened résumé with the name “Lamar J. Smith.” Similar results were found for Asian applicants.

There is real-world bias that exists when it comes to unique names and names that are perceived as racialized. Jiang knows this well: When she entered university, she changed her first name from Kaixin to Gialina.

“I honestly thought that an employer would choose someone named ‘Gialina’ over someone named ‘Kaixin,’” Jiang explained.

But the choice wasn’t easy. Jiang contends that nobody should have to change their name for the comfort of others.

“The experience of one wanting to change their name […] is a direct reflection of failure within our Canadian institutions [that are] still constructed to benefit those of Eurocentric backgrounds,” Jiang said.

While I wish my high school self could have spoken to all of these women and heard about others’ experiences, I never had the opportunity. I regret not standing up for myself in classrooms where other kids may have been struggling with the same thing. But my expectations at that time were still so low you could trip on them. Before my graduation, I was so thrilled to be asked how to pronounce my name, I wrote about it in an article for my school newspaper. Reading my attempts at optimism are now painful. Even though my name was still actually mispronounced at graduation, I reflected cheerily that at least the mistake was “due to an accent rather than a lack of effort.”

It would be a lie to pretend that entering McGill changed my entire behaviour toward my name. Initially, I tried to enforce my name’s proper Persian pronunciation, only to find that Westerners struggled phonetically to the point where I was the one getting annoyed. I fell back to the Canadian pronunciation. I joined a sorority, where, unsurprisingly, almost nobody tried to get my name right, immediately writing it off as “too difficult” and even making fun of it. It’s been a slow process, but I am gaining the confidence to demand the respect that I deserve. I have developed new tactics, ones that confront any mispronunciation instead of avoiding it. Nowadays, I go back and forth with professors in the middle of class if necessary, repeating my name until they get it right. Otherwise, I type my name into notes, screenshot it, zoom in, and take it to the professor after class.

My name is Sepideh, or سپیده‎. It’s a Persian word that translates approximately to “the first lights in the sky before sunrise.” When I was born, my dad showed my mom three different names he liked. Out of them all, she chose Sepideh. It’s impossible to let go of the memories attached to my name, and the loving nicknames my family have given me: “Sepid” from my dad, and “saydeh” from my sister. My name represents my heritage and culture. For my own sake, I am not willing to give others the power of inventing easier names for me. I prefer the one I already have.

Illustrations by Xiaotian Wang, Design Editor