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‘Why don’t any of the signs say Kamala?’ my 6-year-old daughter asked me

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By Raakhee Mirchandani

“Why don’t any of the signs say Kamala?” Satya, my 6-year-old daughter, asked me. She recently learned how to read, and these days there is no sign nor cereal box left unread.

Names are a connection point for Satya and the Democratic vice presidential hopeful, Sen. Kamala Harris. Besides sharing Indian first names, the duo share the same middle name, Devi, something my kid finds endlessly fascinating.

I get it. I’ve watched others struggle with my name my whole life.

“Do you have a nickname,” they ask. I do not.

“But what’s your real name,” they implore. This is my real name, I insist, as if it’s up for debate.

“Ahh, Rocky, like my dog,” they smile. I am constantly in awe of how many pooches named Rocky there must be.

“Like the movie,” I have said, referring to both the boxing flick and the cult musical. “Oh yes, just like the Beatles song,” I’ve nodded. But the truth is, I’m neither named for the Stallone character, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” nor out of extreme fandom for the Fab Four. I am certainly not named after that Paw Patrol recycler.

So to hear Georgia Sen. David Perdue, at a rally for President Trump, mocking Harris’s name, brought a familiar pain.

“Ka-MAL-a, Ka-MAL-a or Kamala, Kamala, Ka-mala, -mala, -mala, I don’t know, whatever,” Perdue said smiling, as the crowd cheered.

To be clear: this isn’t political. It’s personal. It’s about respect. And it applies at home and school, on Zoom /zigman2/quotes/211319643/composite ZM +6.29% calls and at the office.

So here are some notes on names :

1. Names matter. To strip us of our names and offer a version you find palatable, to not care, or to mock our ancestral calls, is racist and xenophonic. It’s also just lazy and rude. When Mahershala Ali won an Oscar in 2017, the first Muslim actor to ever bring home the golden statue, Jimmy Kimmel made some lame name jokes. The same goes for John Travolta’s “Adele Dazeem” Oscar debacle and Jamie Lee Curtis willfully flubbing Uzo Aduba’s name at the 2015 Emmys. But you don’t have to be nominated for an award for this to hurt; calling your co-workers and colleagues, repeatedly by a name that isn’t theirs is unacceptable. We can do better.

Been doing it wrong for awhile? Just ask. A simple, “Hey, can you tell me how to pronounce your name? I know I’ve been messing it up and want to fix that” should do the trick.

I was named by Indian immigrants, a nod to a festival that centers both protection and promise. And yes, Raakhee is my real name. And no, you can’t call me “R”.

2. I am not your Italian Stallion. My name isn’t a punchline. Chances are, there isn’t a joke you can tell me about what you think my name sounds like, or what it reminds you of, that I haven’t heard before. So please don’t talk to me with moose antlers or scream “Adrrrriienne”.

3. Easy is in the eye of the beholder. “R….Rachel? Raquel? Rafiki…” it happened every time, at the start of the school year. No one even tried to say my last name. The fumbling and pausing; the sheer amount of time it took us to finally settle on something that sounded like Ricky.

European and American names don’t always roll effortlessly off my mother tongue, but I try. When I get it wrong, I try again. Last week, when I introduced two colleagues on a group call, they both commented that it was the first time their names had ever been pronounced correctly at work. To say your name, the way it is meant to be said, is how I honor who you are and where you come from.

Introducing someone? Practice their name. I like to ask for a voice note so I can hear how the person pronounces it. If you make a mistake, do apologize and try again. Don’t say something like, “I bet no one ever gets it right” or “Wowza, there’s no way I can pronounce this one.”

4. Name your kids without hesitation. When I was pregnant, my belly swollen with the promise of the next generation of brown, a testament to first generation love and immigrant triumph, I traced my daughter’s name over and over. Satya Devi Singh. Truth Goddess Lion, a self fulfilling prophecy of the highest order.

So when a family member suggested I write her name down on a piece of paper and have friends and neighbors try and pronounce it, I balked. It was a safeguard, he suggested, a way to make sure she wouldn’t deal with the kind of torture we did in school. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t name Satya Devi for the convenience of my neighbors and I hope she doesn’t live for others’ convenience either. I named her to honor the women who had come before us, generations of refugees and immigrants, finding new countries in search of home. Her name is hopeful resistance.

5. Read. Read your children books that celebrate names that are unfamiliar and different than the ones they are used to. I love “Your Name is a Song”, “Alma and How She Got Her Name” and “Thunderboy, Jr.” Also: “The Name Jar” and “Always Anjali”.

Changing names happened a lot. Sometimes it was legal, Michael, Anthony, Karen and Andrew joined the Diwali table with Raakhee and Sharan, Pirkash and Kiran. Other times it wasn’t legal, but rather seen as professional: Sangeeta, Lachu, Arjun and Bhagwan became Sandy, Jerry, Archie and Bob, an attempt to hide what an accent revealed. Uncles and aunts, mavericks and trailblazers, some literally named for Hindu Gods and Goddesses, adopting names that meant nothing to them, in the hopes of some semblance of acceptance.

Speak up when someone is being othered in front of you and teach your kids to do the same.

6. Listen. When I say Raakhee and am met with “Jackie?” — it happens with alarming frequency — I’m convinced either your brain is melting or that our interaction is not important to you. Meeting someone for the first time? Listen when they introduce themselves and repeat their name back. And please don’t ask for a nickname. If they want you to know, they’ll tell you.

7. Socialize. Check out the #MyNameIs campaign on social media. There are powerful, hopeful, celebratory and heartbreaking stories of folks and their names, including Asian Americans from Daniel Dae Hyun Kim to Michelle Kwan, Preet Bharara and Kal Penn. Get to know the names of people in your life, from the coffee shop and corner store, to the new hires at the office and beyond. Pronounce boldly and proudly. But know that deep systemic change doesn’t happen because you read or sent a tweet. Do the work.

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Nov. 27, 2020 1:00p
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