In the Blog
My Name, My Identity
Illustration: Erin McPhee
I recently learned about the My Name, My Identity initiative. This campaign, created by the Santa Clara County Office of Education in California, USA, invites teachers and school districts to commit to saying students’ names correctly and fostering diversity in the classroom. The project also includes a social media hashtag, #mynamemyid, and encourages youth to share the stories and significance of their names.
It’s about time.
This one is personal to me. I have a French first name, an English middle name, and a surname that is German with a French pronunciation. I like it because it reflects three major pieces of my background. My surname comes from a branch of the family on the border of France and Germany. For more than a century it has been pronounced Ryssh.
Whenever I’ve been in French-speaking places, such as Montréal and Lyon, everyone has immediately known how to say and spell my name properly. Outside of Francophone areas, all bets are off. I’m to the point where I’m actually shocked if someone says my name correctly. I routinely hear every pronunciation of my last name imaginable. Reech. Rich. Richie. Reekh. Most people try to put an emphatic, Teutonic “K” sound on the end of it.
I’ve never been offended when someone’s mispronounced my name the first time. However, it’s irritating when they do so repeatedly. Many people become annoyed when I politely try to correct them. Other people simply shrug me off and continue saying my name however they please.
When I was in school, I had teachers who simply would not say my name correctly, no matter how often I tried to tell them how it was pronounced. Many of my friends had the same issue. Their names were Korean or Gujarati or Greek or Latinx, and many teachers just couldn’t be bothered taking the time to learn to say them properly. I still remember one particular instructor who mispronounced just about every name that was not Smith or Jones, gave some students nicknames they hadn’t asked for, and made it clear that she didn’t care what anyone actually wanted to be called.
The teachers who were better about learning students’ names tended to face the same issue. I had one math teacher who started our first class by writing his name phonetically on the board. I had other teachers who introduced themselves by clearly saying their names several times and asking students how to say theirs.
And that should be the default. When you meet someone for the first time, whether it’s in a classroom, office or social setting, it really that hard to ask them, politely, how they say their name?
Our names are a fundamental part of our identities. Often, the very first thing a person learns to read and write is their own name. We introduce ourselves by name. There’s a byline on this article.
Removing or changing someone’s name is an act of aggression. When we say that someone ise “just a number,” we’re saying that they have been stripped of their dignity and individual identity. Bullies often replace their targets’ names with pejorative appellations. A major plot point in many movies, books and TV shows is loss or recovery of missing identities and names. Think of the film Spirited Away, for instance, where the spirit Yubaba renames the protagonist, Chihiro, and controls another character, Haku, by changing his name. Or the Harry Potter series, where almost everyone is afraid to say Voldemort’s name, referring to him instead as “You Know Who” or “He Who Shall Not Be Named.” At the same time, many people honor Harry by calling him “The Boy Who Lived.” In Divergent, Beatrice changes her name and carves out a new identity for herself when she leaves her birth faction and joins Dauntless. Names are a big deal. They have power, and it’s short-sighted not to give them the attention and respect they deserve.
When a teacher – or employer, or anyone else – repeatedly mispronounces a person’s name and refuses to learn to say it correctly, it shows a lack of respect. If you’re spending nine months with a group of students and you can’t even be bothered to learn their names, do you even know them? If you cannot address your co-workers as they’re called, how well are you actually working with them?
There is backlash when students grow up hearing their names bungled over and over again. Many of my friends from school ended up either Anglicizing or otherwise changing their names because they simply couldn’t stand to hear them mispronounced anymore. I’ve personally considered changing my surname – or at least changing the spelling – for the same reason. Nobody should feel forced to change their name because others aren’t willing to respect it enough to learn it, but that’s what happens.
I’ve heard the excuse that teachers have a lot of students to remember, and can’t possibly remember all the names. Nope. That’s not good enough. Teachers tend to have extensive vocabularies and learn new words all the time: compounds in chemistry. Names of famous places, authors and leaders. Legal and medical terms in Latin and dance steps in French. Arabic and German names of stars. The languages they had to learn to graduate from university (most schools require students to learn at least one language). Names of literary characters. If they’re cool with mastering the pronunciation of those terms and names, and feel that it’s important to say them correctly, why do they not feel the need to dedicate the same attention to the human beings sitting at the desks in front of them?
Initiatives like My Name, My Identity are a great step toward changing this status quo. It sends a simple message: that everyone’s name, and identity, are worth learning. Many school districts have already signed the pledge. Here’s hoping that many more follow their lead.