White People™: That's Not My Name
“I was their first connection to a new culture, a new country, as a teacher, I felt that if I didn’t make an effort to pronounce their name correctly, it showed I didn’t care about who they were.” - Jon Gundry
Names are important. They carry family histories, reveal cultural clues, they give people that don’t know us the first bit of insight into who we are, names are deeply personal, and at times, embarrassing. Names carry emotional meaning and value, names have been used to divide people. Names are important.
My whole life people have been mispronouncing my name. Jarell doesn’t appear to be a difficult word to pronounce. It’s only six letters long, and using our “hooked on phonics” skills we can sound out a few ways to pronounce it: juh-rel (the correct way, simply and easy); jay-rel; jay-real; and my least favorite jare-uhl. Now there are plenty of Jarrel’s and Jarrell’s in this world and I’m sure they are fine people, but their names have been used as a tool of oppression for this Jarell. My entire life my peers have deliberately mispronounced my name as a “joke”. Year after year, month after month, week after week for decades. No matter where I am in the country, no matter who I am around someone thinks it's funny to mock the name that Charles and Ramona gave me. I don’t know why. I was wondering, “Why do White People™ keep saying my name wrong on purpose?”
As always my spiritual advisor, Google, sent me to other POC who asked the same question, to PBS which found in a study that students perform better when their teachers call them by their name and do less well when their teachers do not call them by the correct name. Is the misnaming a deliberate attempt to cause poor performance? Do Why do White People™ purposefully call me the wrong name to throw me off? Or is the motivation more sinister?
Malicious Misnaming is a running media troupe, often utilized by mother-in-laws, teenage friennamies, and other shade throwing characters. The purpose in misnaming is to show the misnamed person that they aren’t valued, that they are forgettable, that they are less than. This troupe isn’t a new phenomenon, but can be found in 1930’s radio shows, in the Bible, and in real life like when Jerry Falwell called Ellen DeGeneres “Ellen Degenerate”. Misnaming when done intentionally, is often a means of belittling another person while being able to play it off as a joke.
We know that names carry culture with them, which makes deliberate mispronunciation on the part of White People™ even more distasteful because it exerts one “type” of name above another reminder of White Supremacy being the law of the land. Even our names are subjugated to White demonization. After our cultures are stripped from us after our histories are purged from textbooks, our images are ripped from newsrooms, from TV shows, films, and even our names are worthy of a space in public because our names aren’t White enough. Sometimes I do wish my parents just gave me a White name so that there would be one less way for Why do White People™ to harass me.
But I love my name. I love being Jarell. I have never been a Jarrell or a Jarrel. I’ve always been one "r" and two "ls". I’ve always been Jah’s.
I love that people from other countries care enough to learn to say it right and show patience with me as I learn to tame my tongue just right so I can say theirs without butchering it. This attention to learning each other’s name isn’t just about being polite, it’s a silent way of saying “You are important to me, I care enough about you to spend time getting this right”. Especially for POC it’s a silent statement: “I see how they treat you, I’m not gonna treat your name the way they do.” I sometimes practice saying my friend’s names in the mirror, because I want to smile when I say them, and a good smile takes practice. I could go into the way some of us have to go by nicknames that make us sound like children because Ricardo and Dañiel are just too hard for Anglos to pronounce, we have to remove the seasoning from our Nj’s and Ngy’s because the current majority of mouths in this country prefer things mild. But I really want this rant to serve as a “I see y'all, I care for y’all, if I say your name wrong please correct me - because I think your name is worth learning and saying correctly.”
Could we all start deliberately mispronouncing boring vanilla-basic-cable-and-10-mbps-wifi names uncorrectable like the Key and Peele skit? Sure, but it wouldn’t be the same. Aaron’s don’t have the historical context of oppression or exclusion from society. Aaron isn’t a name that increases the chances of being pulled over or not being called in for an interview like a Khadijah or José or dare I say it, a Jarell. Calling Aaron Ay-ay-ron may make you smirk for two seconds, but his basic name gets him into doors, and him making fun of your deluxe name serves as a reminder that to society your name really is worth laughing at because its beauty separates you from the pack and as much as we celebrate “rugged individualism” in this country, we still only do it on the terms of White People™’s standards and White People™ don’t like “LaKeisha’s” or “Tyrone’s”; their mouths are too lazy to learn “Ahmed” without making jokes about phlegm; their capacity for cultural sensitivity is so limited they get emotionally exhausted just remembering that they can’t use the n-word; and every Latinx name will magically become Mexican - unless this is a “woke” White person then they’ll pick a random country and say “That name sounds like it came from _, I went there on a mission trip/peace corps/social work study abroad class/gap year trip”.
We can make it through this y’all. By 2050 there will be more of us than there are of them, let’s make the commitment now to learn each other’s names and say them correctly. If the cops don’t kill us all before 2050, we'll be one step closer to utopia. Amen.