There were a few conversations that prompted me to write this but I feel that despite the origin, the discussion is important.
Whatever your identity may be in this world, it is significant. That significance is not defined by likes, media but by the love you pour into yourself. Identity is your unique stamp on this planet, the water colour that you, your parents (biological or otherwise) and those who had a hand in your development contributed to.
A huge part of an identity is the name that your parents gifted you at birth or the name you select later on life (this is an idea I toyed with for many years… we’ll get to that later on this piece).
In Western culture common names are often Lisa, John, Paul, Sara, etc. I am sure that when the millions of parents who looked at their cherubs or felt the flutters of baby motions in their tummies selected names like Lisa and Paul, they thought those names were special and beautiful (I am not saying they are not, btw)! (Lisa means God is My Oath and is considered the diminutive form of Elisabeth).
However, I am sure that in some remote village in Central Africa, there is a village chief wondering what in the fuck Lisa means and is struggling to pronounce it. He is also considering banishing the parents who named their baby Lisa because he suspects they are witches. Chief is right now attempting to pronounce Lee-sa as I-Za because he is confused AF.
I propose this scenario because many of you Lisas, Pauls, Saras have never had your identity chipped away at by someone constantly presuming that your name is pronounced one way and not doing you the courtesy of a) attempting to properly pronounce it and/or b) even asking you how your blasted name is pronounced in the first instance. You may have had the benefit of existing in a society where English phonetics are first nature. (My father is Bajan and he cannot pronounce film. He will for the rest of his life, like many from the Caribbean pronounce it FLIM) This thought that we must speak PROPER ENGLISH when many people whose only language is English is height of snobbery, leaving many of us who have a bit of flavour feeling incredulous.
Most of my friends have what English native speakers consider to be unconventional names – names of Arabic, Ghanian, Nigerian, Asian, Native origin, made up names, names that just aren’t Lisa, Paul, John, etc. Look, some of my friends simply have non-“traditional” names. There is one thing we all have in common – a history of some unenlightened, less than conscious, thinking-that-our-parents-should-have-named-us-Sue person mispronouncing our names.
And let’s face it, I would not have woken up on a glorious COVID-19 pandemic riddled morning with this on my mind if people faced mispronunciation only once. I am speaking up for people who are on the other end of these conversations weekly.
People have misgendered me (full disclosure here – my parent’s named me Michaela – a name Mummy Reds stole from her neighbour) and I have had men, send me emails presuming I am a man and then continuing on to address me as MIKE (that is another symptom of privilege that I don’t have the time or keystrokes to address in this blog today).
Starbucks (yes, those assholes that you all are still buying coffee from) have the brass neck to be running a ad advertisement campaign proudly proclaiming that every name has a story when they are chief amongst the perpetrators for re-naming and mispronouncing people’s names when they purchase a cup of fresh brew.
Enough of the ranting (for now), why is this important?
My mother chose a name for me, her sole child in this world, based on the unique love of a parent and the honour she had for her recently departed mother, her Yoruba culture and her mother-in-law. In Yoruba, when a mother or grandmother, dies – the next girl born is given the name Iyabo or Mother Returns. She saw the potential in her daughter and the warrior she would become. The power she gave me was in the love of those four names. As a British-Nigerian woman in a drowning Liverpool in the 70’s, that is what she had to give me.
Every time YOU (yes, you reading this who dismisses people’s names when you can’t pronounce them) you attempt to rob me of the power that my mother gifted me.
You attempt to rob the confidence of recent university graduates in companies who may not have the self-assurance to ask you to pronounce their name correctly.
You reinforce a narrative that someone’s identity is not good enough for your society with your names that our ancestors don’t even acknowledge or recognise.
If your name is two letters or 52, ensure that people are addressing you the way that your parents intended them to. At the end of the day, we were all someone’s baby cherub – somebody looked down at our miserable asses’ and said right “you, my little baby are named Ashfootlypertinentkwametunde” and people need to address you as such.
So what we can’t walk into a shop and buy a pen, poster, notebook with our names on them but I bet you when we walk out of the room, people will remember us because we were the only ones with that name in the room.
Post Script – I have made light of this topic when it’s really not funny but it’s the only way some people will engage
Post Post Script – When and where I was born, Michaela was not a popular name but it is a lot more common now.
Post Post Post Script – I wanted to change my name to Michelle and I am so glad that my parents didn’t give me average Western name
Post Post Post Post Scrip – I love post scripts!