Image Description: A close up shot of a sharpie pen and labels saying ‘Hello, my name is…’ leaving a blank for a name to be written in
Irrespective of whether or not I actually like the name I was given by my parents; it is a fundamental part of my identity and I fail to picture myself being called anything else. Being born in the UK but of Asian origin, myself and many other girls my age have gone through phases of trying to whiten aspects of our identity to fit into Eurocentric standards of acceptance, only to eventually being able to appreciate our differences. Growing up as working class in Leicester during the 1970s, my parents embarked on a mission to give me the shortest and simplest sounding Asian name to prevent any of the racial hostility that they had received because of their names, which were an obvious and immutable marker of difference. This active choice made by my parents, and supported by my aunts and uncles who all chose similar paths with their children, is evidence of a wider and deeply entrenched social problem. Yet, the fact that people still seem to not be able to get it right after being corrected (sometimes multiple times), is perhaps even more alarming.
Actively choosing to mispronounce someone’s name after they have informed you of the correct pronunciation is not a joke, and I refuse to laugh it off anymore. The bubbling sense of frustration of having to constantly say ‘It’s Kaya (pronounced k-ey-a) not Kaia (k-eye-a)’ is something that I have learnt to live with over time, yet I have come to realise that I should not have to. Why should I have to feel as if I am justifying my very existence to someone with an anglicised name, as if I am not of equal social status or moral worth to them? In new situations, being misrepresented or failing to be recognised by your own name removes any sense of power that you derive from your identity, and can subsequently make you feel isolated and othered. The almost daily experience of cringing as someone calls me by the wrong name for the third time in a row is a painful reminder of my ‘otherness’ compared to my peers, and the fact that I do not belong.
It is possible to argue that these missteps are simply innocent errors. But regardless of intention, they are still rooted in a position of privilege. They demonstrate overt ignorance, and are symptomatic of broader trends of discrimination and racism. Chronic patterns of mispronunciation that are brushed off as jokes normalise accepting variations of our own identities that are more palatable to the white majority. We are told that our real names are too difficult or that we are not important enough to be recognised for who we truly are, as if the incorrect pronunciation is actually right.
Why should I have to feel as if I am justifying my very existence to someone with an anglicised name, as if I am not of equal social status or moral worth to them?
The expression ‘microaggression’ is broad and often misused as an umbrella term to denote all forms of discrimination. But, identity is not a small issue. Consistently failing to be recognised for who you really are is extremely invalidating. There is something to be said about being a minority in the UK and speaking up for your own sense of self rather than becoming complicit in accepting something that you are not, in order to make the lives of others easier. I have come to question why I continue to feel obliged to respond to incorrect variations of my own name, even when the thought makes me grimace. In the past, It has taken time for me to build up the courage to shake off the lingering feeling of embarrassment associated with causing a scene. Yet, I am slowly realising that my identity should not be a burden to myself or others. I should not have to work twice as hard as my white counterparts with ‘normal’ anglicised names just to be recognised as myself. I am tired of feeling invisible.
To those who have never been in situations such as this, my personal soliloquy may seem unfounded or even entirely unnecessary. Yet, being in social and academic situations where my name is actively mocked or mispronounced despite persistent correction, it is not just about pride or the state of my slightly bruised ego; it is about power. In Orientalism, Edward Said describes the structure by which those in power have the ability to ‘come to terms with the orient based on the orient’s special place in European Western experience’, and this can be applied to name pronunciation. Being unable to recognise that calling me by the wrong name despite my corrections comes from a place of privilege. It contributes to a system of discrimination and hegemony that ostracises anyone who does not fit into the anglicised, and therefore conventionally accepted, box.
This power dynamic manifests itself differently in social and academic situations, but common experience amongst minorities in the UK with ‘unconventional’ names. Especially in institutions such as Oxford which can already appear isolating and intimidating, not being recognised as yourself or having to mould yourself to become acceptable can feel extremely futile.
There have been countless examples of times when I have failed to speak up when someone calls me Kaia. In social situations I normally give up and opt instead for a passive aggressive text to a friend saying, ‘it’s four ducking letters, how hard can it be’. In academic contexts , correcting a lecturer or tutor can feel almost as if you are challenging your respect for them, which then contributes to an intense feeling of embarrassment. I have clung to the edge of my seat in an assembly when I knew my name was going to be read out, just to see if they would get it right, or know exactly when a teacher was looking at my name on a register as I would be able to see the intense concentration on their face. More recently, when I finally mustered up the courage to correct a tutor on my name, she proceeded to inform me that she preferred Kaia over Kaya. At the time it was easy to brush off and joke about the situation, yet it later reminded me of an overtly racist incident when I was at school; one of my classmates had corrected our teacher on her name, only to be called ‘Biryani’ for the rest of the lesson on the account of the fact that the teacher ‘didn’t speak foreign languages’.
Being unable to recognise that calling me by the wrong name despite my corrections comes from a place of privilege.
Being forced into a cycle of incorrect pronunciation time and time again, the shame at the very thought of correcting someone becomes belittling and deeply uncomfortable. It is not a new story, nor is it uncommon. Some might even argue that I have it far easier than others due to the brevity of my name. Yet, my personal gripe is entirely justified, and it is the result of a build-up of 19 years of being forced to settle for something, and someone that I am not. Ignorance comes from a place of entrenched privilege, aided by the underlying knowledge that you have never had to struggle for the recognition of your identity. The casual racism implicit in pronouncing someone’s name after being corrected is not a joke, and I am certainly not laughing.