Call Me By My Name

Combating Name Mispronunciations in Educational Settings

Written by: Abhinav Boda

My name is Abhinav (ab-hee-nav). In Sanskrit, my name means forever new, but in Hindi, it simply means novel. In a single breath, my name carries bloodlines and dialects and centuries of rich culture and ancestry. And as my name dances on the lips of its speakers, they are drawn into a story: my story.

But in the classroom, my name stumbles, transforming into a tongue twister. It becomes assimilation, its roots in culture and heritage retract. My identity becomes taboo, stigmatized by years of mispronunciations and dismissals of the label on my humanity.

Though seemingly insignificant on the surface, these actions paint a larger narrative: American society has always regarded minorities as foreign, dehumanizing us as the other.

I am not alone. In our increasingly globalized world, ripe with cultural and linguistic diversity, many of our names are vulnerable to neglect, or even mockery in educational settings. A study of minority students across the U.S. conducted by Dr. Rita Kohli found that the problems they experienced with their names in school “caused them a great deal of anxiety, shame or feelings of ‘othering.’” 

One might think that this is a natural reaction to the unfamiliar; to mispronounce, to make mistakes is unintentional and reflective of human nature. But when these mistakes become custom, or when individuals evade my name entirely, they deny my identity.

Such microaggressions are only exacerbated by the power dynamics of the classroom. To confront authority figures like our teachers or even our own peers is a burdensome feat. These dynamics reinforce the internalized feelings of inferiority and invisibility among children of color. When educators refuse to say my name, or to pronounce it correctly, they silence me. And in that very breath, they silence entire cultures and demand our subservience, declaring us as subhuman.

To bridge these cultural divides, we must look no further than a couple of basic concepts. First, when educators are posed with a name they might not be able to pronounce correctly, they must cross the threshold of fear to ask. Making an effort is of utmost importance. Rampant mispronunciations and evasions of our names are rooted in ethnocentrism, which not only undermines our identities but forces us to assimilate. Second, we are obligated to call out mispronunciations of our peers’ names. Our silence only provides a quiet justification for future occurrences and defers ourselves to otherness. 

Abhinav. My name is American, if we choose to acknowledge it. Its novelty a constant reminder of how our Americanness must transcend the different syllables in our names. Call me by my name, and I’ll call you by yours. And maybe then, our new name can be American.