Getting it Right: Why It’s Important To Pronounce Kamala Harris’s and My Name Correctly

The name “Kamala” tops this year’s list of most mispronounced words—yet, as a society, we still haven’t fully recognized name mispronunciation as a form of microaggression. Kamala Harris’s story provides us with an opportunity to “get it right.”

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris speaking with supporters at the annual West Des Moines Democratic Party Summer picnic at Legion Park in West Des Moines, Iowa, in July 2019. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris brings new opportunities for visibility and representation as a Black and South Asian woman. One of the important ways that representation can be furthered is by looking at some of the challenges around the pronunciation of her first name—listed just this week as one of the famous names on the mispronounced words list (it’s Comma-la, by the way).

A name of South Indian heritage, Kamala means “lotus flower” and she describes the flower in her memoir as growing underwater, with roots planted firmly in the river’s bottom.

I resonate deeply with Kamala Harris’s story and believe it provides us with an opportunity to “get it right.” Throughout my life as a first-generation South Asian/Desi American in the United States, people have mispronounced my first and last name or tried to anglicize it for ease.

As a child growing up in the mostly Italian suburbs of New Jersey, early mispronunciation sparked a desire for a new name: Rachel. ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘if I could just be Rachel,’ my life would be easier. I wrote Rachel on my papers, my standardized tests, and even begged my parents to change my name for the better part of second grade. Luckily, they didn’t give in then.

My name, Saili (sigh-lee; sa-ee-lee; साईलि) is tied to the ancestors of my family in the state of Maharashtra, India. Interestingly, Saili is not as common in other parts of the country—thought I learned in graduate school that people in the city of Kangra associate the name with sacred or holy basil.

It was my mother who chose the name for me and subsequently my sister, Shefali, as the names of two flowers that grow in Maharashtra: the Saili flower, a white jasmine flower and the Shefali flower, the night jasmine. These names hold meaning and connection to our cultural and linguistic heritage as Marathis.

In 2010, my sister Shefali Kulkarni, who was writing for the Village Voice in New York at the time, sat down with then National Public Radio (NPR) Michele Norris for a story on the use of “coffee aliases.” My sister had experienced what many of us do at Starbucks, where impatient customers and baristas in a hurry ask for a name, and, flustered, we provide an alternative. My sister used “Sheila” which the barista could easily spell.

What strikes me about my sister’s experience and the experience of so many in schools, coffee shops, the workplace, and in the general public sphere, is that we still haven’t fully recognized name mispronunciation as a form of microaggressions.

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Drs. Rita Kohli and Danny Solórzano, who wrote a research article in 2012, spoke about the racial microaggressions that come from K-12 students’ of color and the experiences of consistently having names mispronounced by teachers. The article outlines the history of the practices associated with renaming for ease and comfort.

This renaming, I argue, is an erasure of what are often beautiful and deeply cultural and historic ties to our ancestors and families. There is erasure when names are mispronounced—like the severing of a long rope that links us to our past. Beyond that, there is also anger, confusion and pain. 

The hardest for me personally is when the mispronunciation is brushed off as “no big deal” or when the agitator is confused by my anger.

Mispronunciation, in my experience, seems to pattern itself across several types of offenders, though this is by no means exhaustive:

  • Too busy to care: This is usually a white, male authority figure who doesn’t see mispronunciation as a big deal and may even brush off the correction with a failure to listen, often causing repeat offenses.
  • Nervous talker: This is again, usually a white, male authority figure, who positions themselves as well-intentioned. They say all the right things, are thought of as well-meaning, but when making introductions or forced to engage, often mess up names awkwardly. This is usually without any kind of public apology, though some may try to privately recompense. 
  • The Oppressed Who Oppress: This is most often people of color who have anglicized names but do not have to think about mispronunciation as a form of microaggressive behavior. This tends to include people who are often doing great work in other areas of racial and/or social justice, but often miss the nuances or details of name pronunciation. 

Moving Beyond Mispronunciation

Given these challenges and microaggressions faced by those of us with what Warshan Shire deems “difficult names” what can agitators do to move forward and course correct?

Earlier this year, Ruchika Tulshyan provided some good suggestions in an article for the Harvard Business Review. Importantly, we should:

  1. Ask how to pronounce the name and actively listen to the pronunciation.
  2. Avoid over apologizing without course correcting.
  3. Allow for clarification, repeatedly if needed.
  4. Ally with those who have experienced mispronunciation and step in with the proper pronunciation. 

In addition to all of these wonderful suggestions, I advocate for us to add our phonetic pronunciations into our parenthesis with our gender pronouns, even if our names are considered common, thereby normalizing name preferences and pronunciation. Gender identity is an important part of who we are, and, I would argue, so are our names.

So, in the future, when you encounter me on the street, please do not “call me Bob,” anglicize my name to something like “Sally,” or make ill-fated attempts if you are not confident. Instead, please do ask me for the proper pronunciation, and listen as I tell you my name is Saili (Sigh-lee; she/her/hers).

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Saili S. Kulkarni (Sigh-lee S. Cool-cur-knee; she/her/hers) is an assistant professor of special education at San José State University who studies race and disability. She is a public voices fellow with the Op-Ed Project.