Great Britain

‘My name is Yewande’: Mispronouncing or changing people’s names is just another form of racism

“Pronouncing your name isn't even important, why are you making such a big deal out of it? Let’s be honest, your name isn’t important.”

Well, let me tell you exactly why my name is important – and pronouncing it correctly is key to my identity.

I know a lot of people who are reading this will know this story all too well. That gaping anxiety you feel just before you introduce yourself to someone.

Writing this piece made me tap into a memory of my five-year-old self, when it was time for roll call at school. I could feel my name coming closer as I squeezed the seat of my chair, held my breath and prayed the substitute teacher didn’t butcher my name. It had taken about five months for the first one to get it right.

I went home and told my mum that when I grew up and had kids, I would give them European or normative names so no one would laugh at them. My mum sat me down and said, “you don’t even know how beautiful your name is.” It was the first time she told me what my name meant – or maybe it was the first time I had actually truly heard her.

She said, “there is power in your name, and power in the tongue who speaks it. Raise your head, smile, and boldly tell them that your name is Yewande, daughter of Biala.”

The term, “microaggression”, by definition, is used for, “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural or environmental indignities; whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatised or culturally marginalised groups”.

Microaggression has the prefix of “micro” attached, but anyone who has experienced this type of aggression will tell you that it feels anything but small. You don’t know how to respond, and you don’t want to make such a big deal, but it is. The most common excuse that an aggressor will give is, “oh, I didn’t mean it like that”, but “intent” does not equal “impact”.

The issue isn't unintentional mistakes, but rather how people recover from them.

So, when someone doesn't take the time to learn the proper way to pronounce another person's name, or worse – intentionally mocks it for being “too difficult” to pronounce, or tries to ascribe another name to make themselves feel comfortable – it can come across as malicious.

It also evokes a history of dominant groups forcing new names on people of oppressed groups. If you have known somebody for a long time, and are still pronouncing their name incorrectly, guess who has power in that relationship?

There is a longstanding history of forced assimilation as a way to maintain the power structure. Dominant groups dismissing certain names as “too hard” is tied to racism and other forms of oppression.

History has taught us that slaves were forced to answer to their imposed names, impelling them repeatedly to acknowledge their own subjection and powerlessness. Renaming constituted an act of eradicating the rupture between the people they had been, and the people they were becoming.

Often, when slaves gained their freedom, they insisted on receiving a new name in front of witnesses at a formal event, to mark the ending of oppression and the birth of a new person.

Examples of name changes to reclaim identity include Amiri Baraka – who was born Everett LeRoi Jones – an activist, poet and writer. There was also Assata Olugbala Shakur – a former member of the Black Liberation Army , named one of the FBI’s most-wanted fugitives – born, in 1947, JoAnne Deborah Chesimard.

Many ethnic minority groups are no longer willing to accommodate the dominant white culture, at the expense of their own heritage. These incidents may appear banal and trivial, but can have a great impact on individual emotional state.

It can be a monumental task to get aggressors to realise that they are delivering microaggressions, because it’s terrifying for them to realise they may have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings against individuals from ethnic groups.

Yet microaggression is a form of oppression that reinforces existing power differentials between groups, whether or not this was the conscious intention of the offender.

Subtle forms of racism, such as microaggressions, can also be difficult to identify, quantify, and rectify because of their indefinite and unclear nature. While the person may feel insulted, they are not sure exactly why; and the perpetrator doesn't acknowledge that anything has happened, because they are not aware they have been offensive.

Imagine living in a world where our culture and heritage were abolished in order to make others feel comfortable. Without an adequate understanding of the illusive dynamics of subtle racism and racialised re-naming, microaggressions will remain invisible and harmful to the well-being, self-esteem, culture and identify of ethnic minorities.

So, when you address me, say my name – “Yewande” – and yes, it is important.

Yewande Biala, 24, is a cancer scientist who appeared on ITV2 reality show Love Island in 2019. 

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