“Oh, and I’ll pass it to…oh, I’m sorry if I mispronounce any names here, I know I will just butcher it, I’m so sorry…” a Kate, or Anna, or Samantha says before completely butchering my name. I sigh and unmute myself once I hear them flustered. As the only person of color in the room, I know it’s going to be my name that they horribly mispronounce.
“It’s okay. It’s pronounced La-lee-tha,” I say, with a tired expression. “It’s phonetic. It’s spelled the way it sounds.” The person who mispronounces my name looks embarrassed and asks for forgiveness. I grant it, because what else am I supposed to do?
During Zoom meetings, many facilitators like to “popcorn” the introductions. This means that whoever speaks tosses it to another person, inviting them to say this person’s name out loud. This is inequitable, and let me explain why.
I work in politics, and while it is true that Indian-Americans — one of the fastest-growing American demographics — are making their way into many leadership-type careers, we still lag behind in politics. Even with the election of Kamala Harris, it is still unlikely that you hear very many South Indian names very often, especially in the Midwest. When I am in a room, I am usually the only person whose name is too long to fit into my Zoom box. This is a product of so many systems of oppression, both American and Indian; patriarchy making men think my name isn’t important, white supremacy making me an “exotic” person, the model minority myth and my own culture restricting Indian women in politics, etc. So, it’s a little bit of a miracle that I’m even here in the first place. And I’m proud of being here to make pathways for other AAPI political people in Ohio to get to where I am and move beyond me. But every time someone mispronounces my name over Zoom, it gets a little bit harder, and there is such an easy fix for this.
[Read Related: Is My Name White Enough For You? ]
I might be one of the only people with what Americans would consider an unpronounceable name, but we don’t need to popcorn it in Zoom introductions to set up an environment where racism will come out.
I am not ashamed of my name, but I have changed how it’s pronounced to make it easier for non-Indian Americans. I can’t imagine what it’s like for other marginalized people whose names are spelled in ways that are not phonetic. There’s nothing fun about your name being butchered, and then being expected to make space for learning how to pronounce a name during a business meeting. Racism shows up in a lot of ways, and this is one of them. Racism shows up in this small way, making people with “ethnic” names hear their names butchered, forcing an environment that produces one of the most common microaggressions, and then forcing people of color to forgive that person for their mispronunciation. So, here are 4 tips for creating a microaggression-free zoom meeting:
- For the organizer: Create an RSVP list that has a slot to phonetically spell a name, and look over that list before holding the meeting, and say the names out loud to yourself to recognize which ones you might trip over (if you don’t have the time, make sure you have someone else helping organize the meeting that does)
- For the attendee: Don’t avoid calling on someone because you feel that you can’t pronounce their name. If you are being asked to call on someone, direct message that person on Zoom, and ask if they can phonetically spell their name, so you don’t mess it up or ask them to pronounce it in front of everyone
- For the attendee: If you mispronounce a name, don’t over-apologize, or follow up with some qualifier about that name being pretty sounding, etc. It’s not a compliment.
- For the individual experiencing the microaggression: Don’t be afraid to proactively phonetically spell your name on your Zoom, or in an email thread with attendees. Your name is incredibly important, and it’s imperative that we do not shy away from its correct pronunciation!
Everyone should be held accountable for creating an environment free of racism, especially in the political equity space. When someone mispronounces or misspells my name, even after the 100,000th time, it makes me less inclined to trust the space in which I am expected to work. Especially if you’re a white ally, this is one small way to make a pretty big difference in the workplace. Of course, this is not some form of liberation for marginalized people, so don’t fall short of your efforts to eradicate racism by only adopting this.
But at the very least, don’t mispronounce my name.