That’s not my name: How the whitewashing of ethnic names is a silent approval of white superiority


Zainib Al-Jayashi, Co-Editor-in-Chief

The final bell has rung and summer break has just begun. The only thing I can comprehend is the brightness of the sun and the ropes of my stress unraveling as I learn to breathe again in the warm air. For a few months, my presence is not needed at school, but as the distraction of my work is no longer drowning me, I begin to wonder if my presence has ever fully been in attendance. 

Two weeks into summer vacation, I already start to dread returning back for another year; another year where I will have to correct my teachers and classmates on how to say my name. My time off from academia has never felt like a break because I still find myself rehearsing the same speech, the same “meaningless” speech I’ve been sharing for 12 years — the speech that never seems to make a great enough impact to last. 

It’s the first day of school, and I have already silently cried my wishes to all of the shooting stars that this school year will contain less of my flushed cheeks of embarrassment. Five minutes into teacher introductions, and we have a roll call. I am always one of the first people to be called on as my last name begins with the letter A, but I wish I could just go unnoticed and be forgotten. 

“Zuh-neeb?” they say. 

“It’s Zay-nib,” I respond. 

“Oh, I’m sorry. You’re going to have to correct me for a few days,” they laugh. 

I promise I am not inconsiderate or ignorant. I have already acknowledged that my name is not common here in the United States (U.S.) and that it may be hard to pronounce correctly on the first attempt. But the one issue I cannot seem to grasp is the on-going mispronunciation of my name for the entirety of the school year. 

I am not “Zuh-nib.” I am not “Zuh-neeb.” I am not “Z.” 

I am Zainib. 

As a person of color, I have experienced this situation first-hand. Before even figuring out who I am as a human being or even what my interests are, my name presents a seemingly impenetrable barrier. Though it seems disrespectful to my cultural background, sometimes I give in to the mispronunciations as I am brainwashed to believe that it’s more “convenient” for others to say, but that doesn’t mean that I am not tired or angry about the lack of effort. I am only one of countless people who grapple with the foundation of their identity as they lose themselves to the pressures of unconsciously whitewashing their name. 

An article written by Zulekha Nathoo and published by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) titled, “Why getting a name right matters,” mentioned the story of a Canadian radio host’s experience in wanting to represent her entire identity, rather than half or a quarter of who she truly is. 

Nathoo wrote, “Canadian radio host Naba aba Duncan decided a decade ago she no longer wanted to go by nicknames and instead reclaim her full Ghanaian name, pronounced Nuh-NAA-buh.” To ensure that her peers would acknowledge her background, she attached a name pronouncer in her emails to help those who were unaware of the pronunciation. Even with the help, she encountered a woman who claimed she could never pronounce Duncan’s real name and proceeded to laugh at her for being culturally different rather than taking the time to understand her roots. Duncan then faced the entitlement of white superiority when others began calling her ‘Nana’ for the sake of their convenience. Although Duncan despised the lack of effort and humor found in her name, she said, “‘I feel like I’m a spoil sport if I say, ‘actually, I don’t think that’s funny’.” 

While those who continue to incorrectly pronounce names may not think much of their mispronunciations, they are slowly deconstructing an identity and dehumanizing that person. In the same BBC article, Xiao Zhao, a postdoctoral at the University of Toronto stated, “Habitually pronouncing an unfamiliar name incorrectly is a form of implicit discrimination. It sends a message that ‘you are minimal, or you are not important in this environment, so why should I take time and my effort to learn it?’”

For Lincoln Southeast High School (LSE) junior Kelly Pinto, he has altered his name to something more socially accepted in order to be seen as belonging more in a white society after experiencing the constant mispronunciation of his name from a young age. 

“My name is Michel [mih-kel], but I have gotten a lot of Michael’s and Michelle’s,” Pinto said. “I don’t like any of the mispronunciations; I’m just like ‘you tried.’ From very early on, I was like ‘we’re out of here, I can’t do this anymore’.”

Though Pinto has an appreciation for his true name, he assimilated to identifying as “Kelly.”

“I kind of like my name now, but I don’t really think about it that often because I go by Kelly so much,” Pinto said. “The only reason I go by Kelly is because when I was in elementary school, I went to an all-white school. Having a name like “Kelly” [allowed] me to blend in more because I already stuck out like a sore thumb. I thought to myself, ‘Why stick out even more when I can just go by Kelly?’ My name being “Michel” wasn’t something that was like, ‘Oh, you’re unique’, it was just something like, ‘Oh, that’s different.’”

In a society that praises radical acceptance, it’s ironic to think that the statement is somewhat of a hypocrisy. Through the years, there has been progress in equality for all people, but the effects of the past don’t suddenly dissolve, especially when they have scarred the mind deeply. Pinto’s real name, Michel, stems from a Ugandan background, but Kelly stems from a nickname given to him by a white family member. Though the name was created out of fun, it was ultimately turned into a white name. 

“I began conforming when I was a little kid,” Pinto said. “In terms of the future, I’ve contemplated using Michel for college, but I think for the sake of convenience, I’ll continue to use Kelly just because it’s almost like my new name now.”

Although people of color often take the initiative to confront those who minimize of mispronouncing a name, it’s truly up to the people of society — the white race — to fully acknowledge the issue and walk towards a direction of change. The elements in the equation must balance out in order for it to be solved; one factor cannot be more than the other. Unfortunately, Pinto faced the unbalanced equation and had to make a difficult change for others rather than others making an easier change for him.“When you’re surrounded by people who don’t look like you, I might as well blend in as much as I can,” Pinto said. “I can’t change my hair and my skin, so I might as well change my name.” 

The act of branding oneself into an altered identity is not a result of embarrassment of the ethnic or cultural roots that one is born into; it is a response to the discrimination and belittlement that overshines any attempt to be authentic. An article written by Joe Pinsker and published by The Atlantic —  an American journal of news, literature and opinion — titled, “American Immigrants and the Dilemma of ‘White-Sounding’ Names” stated that “American-sounding first names functioned more as a signal of ‘an effort to assimilate’ than a means of ‘hiding one’s origins’.” Pinto’s modification to  “Michel” was an unconscious force of white superiority from the environment he was surrounded in. Even if the decision of changing one’s name is made personally, it is still not justified to change oneself when there has been no attempt of acceptance in an environment. 

One can agree that Pinto changing his name to conform for others’ sake is difficult as it toggles with the complexity of identity, but when peers choose to add to the pondering, it causes more of a dissociation with oneself. Pinto’s attempt at correcting those who were misidentifying him failed, and it left him with no option but to pretend that his name was being said correctly. 

“In middle school, my gym teacher was still calling me Michael, and I corrected him several times,”  Pinto said. “There’s layers because people call me one thing, but it’s written the other thing; it’s just too complex.” 

The reality for Pinto, though, is that he has grown accustomed to the mispronunciations.

“I almost just expect [mispronunciations], like when I’m signing up for something, I expect for that to happen and I factor that in while I’m doing it,” Pinto said. “[But] it’s hard because I am going out of my way and putting effort when I don’t have to put effort for anyone else’s name.”

From his experiences, Pinto has learned that not everyone is able to acknowledge others in a way that is deemed considerate to all, and for that reason, he has had to draw conclusions to lighten the weight of the situation. 

“Sometimes when you’re dealing with ignorant folk, you just have to assume that they’re not cultured and that they’re not going to understand,” Pinto said. 

To those who cannot relate, it is exhausting to have to correct the people around us. It is one thing to mispronounce it on the first try, but it is another thing to continuously make the same mistake because there is no drive to learn how to say it. It is not our responsibility to teach others the correct pronunciation of each syllable and vowel, and it is almost insulting to laugh off your mistakes without learning from them. Our names are not something anyone can declare as wrong or weird; our names are something for everyone to respect because it is the beginning of our existence. 

In the same BBC article titled, “Why getting a name right matters,” Myles Durkee, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, said, “There are also those who use their real names, only to have people repeatedly mispronounce them. [Getting names wrong] can go under the radar for a lot of individuals. Other people can see it as, ‘oh, it’s not that big of a deal.’ What makes it detrimental is the chronic pattern of doing this consistent mispronunciation. And the ripple effects from that are much more adverse, signaling to the individual that they’re less important, that they’re less valued.”

Unlike Pinto, LSE Spanish teacher Teresa Barta didn’t wholly change her name, but she changed the pronunciation of it to something that doesn’t feel genuine to her. Immigrating to the United States from the Canary Islands off of Spain not only provided a new environment, but also a new pronunciation of her name. Her move gave her a new national identity that would soon be dictated by those who cannot seem to accept ethnic culture. 

“After 15 years, I’ve gotten more used to it, but it just doesn’t feel like me; it’s weird,” Barta said. “It is completely a question of identity and just recognizing myself and still being me.” 

Because of Barta’s Spanish background, the correct pronunciation of her name is Teh-reh-sah rather than Tuh-ree-sah. Growing up in Spain, Barta was only aware of the Spanish pronunciation, but when she moved to the states, it all took a turn. 

“If I say it the way it’s said, everybody would kind of tilt their head; sometimes, people’s behavior, attitude, or tone would completely change, and I immediately felt like more of an outsider,” Barta said. 

Barta’s connection to her name allows her to stay close to her family and home country even if they’re more than four thousand miles away from Nebraska. Her immigration to the U.S. resulted in a sacrifice of heritage; she had to leave her family, culture, language and comfortability in order to mix homogeneously with the rest of society. Having to leave the core of her nationality and the place where she began to discover who she was as an individual left her with nothing but the risk of experience and her own name. 

“I think what it comes down to is that I have had to change so much to adapt to a new culture, new country, new people around me, new environments; and if there’s even something I can keep for myself, I think it would be the core of my name,” Barta said. “It’s like the last bit of me that has been there since the beginning, so it would be like denying who I am or where I come from if I were to change my name.”

Many of us with “different” names find it frustrating that the empathy from others seems to run short when it comes to the act of respecting a name. It takes more than just physically moving to be accustomed to a new place. The mental conflicts of having to adapt and mold to be deemed a true American citizen is overwhelming when we were constructed in another culture. It is impossible to erase the roots we’ve grown from because it is where we feel the most understood and accepted; it’s the start of our growth as human beings. We are not given handbooks to teach us what is acceptable and what isn’t; we learn from the first-hand experiences and traumas. With these experiences, we have learned that our names are something that is not accepted because it’s too “exotic.” People of color, along with the rest of the population, want to feel like they belong. If we have to keep on changing our names for the sake of your comfort and not our own, we will never believe that we belong in the states. 

As Barta became situated in the U.S. and began to adapt, as well as deepen her understanding of American culture, she soon learned that the only thing she had left — her name — would soon be left behind in Spain, too.

“I felt like it was another thing that I had to do just to make sure everybody else was comfortable and that they were not going to get all weirded out about them having to repeat or learn something different,” Barta said. 

Even after coming up against the mispronunciation of her name and having to give some of it up, Barta has never let go of the appreciation of her name.  

“The only time that I didn’t like my name was when it was mispronounced [in the states] during that period of time of moving because I felt as if I was an imposter. I was not myself, and I didn’t recognize myself. That was a hard time because I was trying to learn everything and find myself at the same time,” Barta said. “Now after going through all of that, I’m fine with all of [the mispronunciations] because I’m sure of who I am.”

Similar to Pinto, Barta has also had to draw her own conclusions to lighten the weight of her situation. 

“I don’t correct people on it unless somebody asks, ‘how do I say it?’ or ‘did I say it right?’ I think people that actually care about you will try and get it right, and the others you don’t need to bother with every little battle,” Barta said. 

Since Barta endured the whitewashing of her name, she wants to ensure that she doesn’t reciprocate the hurt she felt onto anyone else. She understands the feelings of being seen as an outsider, and she wouldn’t wish it upon any other person. 

“I think when people show interest and care in others, then they make an effort. I think it’s a part of manners,” Barta said. “If a student tells me their name, I might ask a billion times how to say it and I might mess it up sometimes, but I’m gonna keep trying to get it right.”

Barta’s and Pinto’s hardships may not be exactly identical, but the feelings of invalidation and perplexity are what they share. An article titled, “Put some respect on my name,” written by Yasmine Elkharssa and published by The Michigan Daily — a student newspaper of the University of Michigan — said, “Intentionally mispronouncing, or poking fun at people’s ethnic names is a form of casual racism that promotes the superiority of white people and western ideals.” Barta and Pinto were victims of the forceful cultural assimilation of American society. The two had to sacrifice and overlook their authenticity just so they could interweave to be viewed as a person within, not as an outlier. Despite the efforts to look past the microaggressions, the issue still remains as there has been little to no awareness. 

For change to occur, there must be action. While the constant correcting of a mispronounced name may seem intimidating, Pinto and Barta both believe that there are more considerate ways of approaching a name to avoid incorrect assumptions. 

“When [others] give me my last name [first] and hint at my first name a little bit, I’ll come and jump in because when they assume, it’s just wrong,” Pinto said. 

Although Barta has a different approach, her purpose remains the same. 

“If it’s a more common name, I might just say it and then ask ‘did I say it right?’” Barta said. “If I come across a name and I’m not sure how to say it, I go to the person and show them the list of names and ask them how to say it.” 

An article titled, “How do I respectfully ask someone to pronounce their name?” published by — a website of a collection of learning experiences that help to build on transferable careers and life skills — recommends the prompt, “‘I want to make sure that I say your name correctly. Could you pronounce your name for me, please?’” This simple prompt radiates off validation, making us with ethnic names more comfortable in a given environment. 

On the contrary, things to avoid saying include, ‘Can I call you [ ] instead?’ ‘Could you go by something else?’ or ‘Is there anything easier?’ Other things to avoid are assuming that everyone is okay with the mispronunciations, joking around or making fun of a name or laughing off your mistakes without taking a second to consider the other person’s feelings. The genuine effort of trial and error is preferred over the inconsideration when learning to say someone’s name. 

Names carry the details for the infinite, ever-changing story of identity. The second our eyes opened to discover the new world, our ears listened to the sound of our own names before we could hear the birds sing. Without a name, there is no identity; everyone is given a name, and it deserves to be respected. Our names are ours to define, so what will it take to deconstruct the unbreakable barrier to be able to see the importance of respecting a name?