Updated: Dec 30, 2020
How many of you have ever felt personally victimised by a substitute teacher taking the class register? I see you raising your hands. During my time in school, I probably heard every possible variation of my name being uttered from the lips of teachers with good intentions. Kiki; Katie; Kelki; Keti; and my personal favourite—Keto. I would usually laugh alongside my classmates, finding the mispronunciation humorous, then gently correct the teacher, because after all, five letter names are notoriously difficult to pronounce. The teacher would then continue on to attempt my last name: a steep uphill battle of 16 letters. So, I’d laugh with everyone again, and just say, don’t worry about it. My classrooms have been hosting these perpetual name games of half pronounced guesses and growing embarrassment for over a decade. The prize is usually a, “oh you can just call me *insert first name*”.
All jokes and cynicism aside, I found myself reflecting on these past moments more often this year; definitely inspired by the increased education of covert microaggressions and a certain Mrs. Harris’ rhetoric: Mr. Vice President, I am speaking. I forced myself to think deeper about my own nature and communicative habits that have created a personal tendency to accept my name being mispronounced, or not even fully spoken.
Looking back, I see a young girl who felt as though accommodating authoritative figures, like teachers, coaches, and other parents, was respectful, and expected of me. It was my job to make my own name – the essence of my identity – feel more acceptable, approachable, and manageable in a largely white space. It was a linguistic way of ‘taming’ myself and accepting the fact that my last name would just get ignored. There was a time where I would take it upon myself to Anglicise my own name to make it easily understandable— “oh, it’s like Katie, but pronounced with another k”. There was another time where I hyped myself up with the idea that I could join the list of other mononymous people, think: Cher, Madonna. Don’t judge me, I was like 14.
Did we all do this? Is this tendency to diminish ourselves rooted in a larger, diasporic symptom of we can’t take up too much space. There was a sentiment that as an ‘outsider’ (perhaps, a POC immigrating to a different country) the least we could do is accommodate our western neighbours, and not cause too much of a fuss. This mentality is common as many immigrants who move to countries like America or the U.K. change or anglicise their names, to avoid social discrimination. This is understandable. Names have significant power, whether that be in a spiritual capacity, or in our socio-economic landscape.
But I want to think about school; our formative, learning, years where the classroom culture can have long-lasting effects on personal growth and development. I think back to my own experiences, and those of my friends, and wonder how mispronouncing, mocking, and dismissing names was something of a social norm:
Age 12: I continue to hold my breath every time a new teacher opens a class list at the start of the academic year. As we near the middle (names starting with M), my classmates turn their faces in anticipation to gauge my reaction when eventually [and as always] the teacher will struggle with my name. Was this some sort of game to my classmates?
Age 14: I notice as my best friend goes through the same experiences. He has a long first name, and it’s foreign. The class shortens it and gives him a nickname which he more or less accepts. Now every time a teacher struggles to pronounce his name, five kids pipe up in the class and proudly tell the teacher that they can just call him *nickname*. My friend smiles tiredly and says nothing, as our friends speak on his behalf and decide what he should be called.
Age 15: Another friend’s name appears in our school newspaper. We all look, except it’s not his name. It is someone else, who shares his first name (although spelt a little differently) and a completely different last name. We all laugh it off, but I wondered why that “oversight” has never happened with the 15 different ‘Jacks’ in our school.
Age 16: I am graduating secondary school, and I have won awards for my contribution as Head Girl and other activities. I get to give a speech and my family is in the crowd. As I am being called to receive the awards, they only say ‘Ketki’, and stop there. The significance of my name is undermined because the presenter did not have the respect, courage, or hindsight to ask me how to pronounce my name before the ceremony. But I know I will still smile and go on stage.
This has developed beyond passive acceptance – it’s tiredness and exhaustion. When you convince a young child that their name does not deserve the effort to be pronounced correctly (through means of asking them directly) you instil the long-term idea that their identity does not matter; that their name, as an extension of their culture, religion, and ancestry, is too complicated to respect. When non-Euro-Christian names are labelled as too long or too difficult, we isolate people further and invalidate their spoken identity.
I think back now and realise that in the passive decision to leave out my last name, I effectively discredited my cultural and familial history—something that is interwoven with the origins of my first and last name. The hundreds of ancestors that lived, existed, and built a legacy before me are surmounted by a single act of disrespect I impose on myself, every time I tell someone to not “bother” saying my name. It took years for me to realise that this, in its personal form, wasdisrespect. Yet, I don’t think I can place total blame on past teachers, old friends, or academic institutions. This was a personal conflict - that didn’t even feel like a conflict - between my ability to assert myself and my identity as an Indian abroad. Did I wake up one day and decide, I don’t really care if people pronounce my name, because it’s not that important? Or did my environment promote that compliance? We have seen cases of a professor telling a student to ‘Anglicise’ her name earlier this year, or the horrible racist attack of a Sikh boy in Telford School this week, which sparked many people in the Sikh community to open up online about how they were ridiculed and bullied in a school environment.
“I’d like you to know that you reminded me of a younger me and that I saw myself in that same video. The same ‘Inkquisitive’ that for called Amanda instead of Amandeep at school.”
- @inkquisitive on Instagram
I also understand that the fear of mispronouncing names can lead people to avoid them altogether. We don’t want to embarrass people or feel ignorant. However, there is nothing stopping us from trying and putting in that effort to just ask:
- What is their preferred name?
- How is that name correctly pronounced?
- What pronouns do they use?
When you show people that you respect them enough to ask and try, you are telling them that they are seen for their name, culture, and identity. How can we boast about our schools and workplaces having diversity (on paper), when there’s no inclusion? So, you want people with cool sounding names that are outside of your cultural comfort zone, but you won’t take the time to learn to pronounce them? Something doesn’t add up.
Remember when we were little kids, who just learned how to spell and write our names; the pride we felt when our crayon-scribbled signatures were plastered over bedroom walls and old newspapers. Somewhere along the way - perhaps after experiencing relentless teasing, misprinting on school papers, or apathetic teachers- we decided that it just wasn’t worth it to have our names pronounced correctly. Or even fully spoken. We accepted nicknames just so we could be spared a few moments of embarrassment as a teacher fumbled through our name.
I want that 5-year-old crayon scribbling energy back, because I am proud of my name, and the history it carries. I am proud to introduce myself as Ketki Mahabaleshwarkar because that is the history of my family, and the name I am making for myself. Also, it’s just a pretty cool name in general—thank you Aai and Baba! I want to encourage all of you, to reclaim your name, in small ways from your own self, because more often than not, we are the ones who do not challenge this. I hope we can slowly change our own learned-habits and perceptions and realise that our names are powerful and significant, and not something to be embarrassed of. So, in summary (and the words of Birdman): put some respek on my name.
Ketki currently studies Classics and English Literature at King’s College London. She is the deputy editor-in-chief of Strand Magazine, KCL’s ‘Arts and Culture’ publication. She explores what "multi-cultural identity" looks like, in London and beyond, within her writing. She is the author of the exclusive digital column "Ketki & The City", which explores life at the intersection of Gen Z and diaspora.