This hashtag was shared on twitter during election season 2020 inspired by a politician that could not pronounce Kamala Harris’ name and turned it into a laugh line at a rally. In each post on the twitter thread, people of color again reminded that it is a basic form of respect to learn to speak someone’s name correctly. One person noted, “It shouldn’t be on POC to shave off pieces of our culture to make life easier for white people”. (Lim, 2020)
A name carries the essence of one’s identity, culture and lineage. Mispronouncing someone’s name, and not taking the time to get it right, is an example of linguicism. Linguicism, like all the ‘isms’ perpetuates dominant social structures. Banaji and Greenwald (2017) in Blind Spot remind how a microaggression like mispronouncing someone’s name – a ‘repeated small effect’ – can accumulate to “…exacting a serious toll on the targets of the discrimination”. In my line of work as a music specialist, learning students’ names is a huge undertaking especially at the start of the year since I see every child in the school for two, short 30-minute lessons. It takes time to know my students and speak their names. I’ve known students who’ve experienced multiple teachers and peers (including classroom teachers and me!) saying their names incorrectly for months. Devastating! I don’t think I will ever feel the same about taking attendance after reading this powerful essay from Tasbeeh Herwees, The Names They Gave Me. Here’s a passage describing a new teacher taking roll:
She moves on before I can correct her. She said it wrong. She said it so wrong. I have never heard my name said so ugly before, like it’s a burden. Her entire face contorts as she says it, like she is expelling a distasteful thing from her mouth. She avoids saying it for the rest of the day, but she has already baptized me with this new name. It is the name everyone knows me by, now, for the next six years I am in elementary school. “Tazbee,” a name with no grace, no meaning, no history; it belongs in no language. (Tasbeeh, 2014)
Linguicism blocks us from our humanity, from learning from and connecting with each other, and from students feeling safe and secure at school. Judging or discriminating against someone based on their dialect, language or way of speaking is insidious and especially destructive in a classroom where students’ well-being and ability to learn are undermined. Linguist Tracy Weldon states, “a lot of times people assume that there is some linguistic basis for the stigma against a variety and they’re not aware that it really is about the people.” (Wolfram, 2020) Carrie Gillon (2016) accurately describes linguistic discrimination is “a sneaky way to judge on the basis of race, gender, social class, education (all while pretending it’s about something loftier)”.
We know from the power of expectation that teachers’ implicit bias will impact student outcomes and attitudes about their own ability to achieve. Implicit bias is pervasive, and racial attitudes continue to discriminate. (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013) Unfortunately, teachers are known to have lower expectations of marginalized students.
(Boser et al., 2014) Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. New York: Random House.
Boser, U., Wilhelm, M., & Hanna, R. (2014). The power of the Pygmalion effect: Teachers’ expectations strongly predict college completion. Center for American Progress. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress. org/issues/education/report/2014/10/06/96806/thepower- of-the-pygmalion-effect/
Fridland, V. (2020, June 20) The sound of racial profiling: When language leads to discrimination. Nevada Today. Retrieved from https://www.unr.edu/nevada-today/blogs/2020/the-sound-of-racial-profiling
Herwees, Tasbeeh. (2014, January 15) The Names They Gave Me. The Toast. Retrieved from https://the-toast.net/2014/01/15/the-names-they-gave-me/ Lim, C.J. (2020, October 17) People Of Color Are Sharing The Meaning Behind Their Names After A GOP Senator Mocked Kamala Harris’s Name. BuzzFeed News. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/clarissajanlim/david-perdue-kamala-harris-name-mynameis-hashtag?bftwnews
Wolfram, W. (Producer) (2020) Talking Black in America [Motion Picture]. United States: The Language and Life Project; North Carolina State University