Mohini Lal, RJ Fellow at National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF)
“give your daughters difficult names. give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. my name makes you want to tell me the truth. my name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.” –Warsan Shire
Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) has worked in federal politics for a decade. After serving as a Congresswoman representing Hawaii’s 2nd District, Senator Hirono made history in 2012 when she became the first Asian American woman Senator; the first woman Senator from Hawaii; the first Senator born in Japan; and the first Buddhist Senator in the United States. She’s only been in the Senate for five years, but as an advocate for her state, for women, and for people of color—Senator Hirono’s never been shy.
That’s why it was shocking to witness Senator Hirono encounter the same kind of awkward moment I go through as an ordinary person all the time – having one’s name butchered, as though it can’t be a name at all. Chairman Chuck Grassley of the Judiciary Committee called on Senator Hirono, but then interrupted her to ask, “Am I beginning to pronounce your name right?” Senator Grassley (R-IA) has been in the Senate since 1981 and has served on the Senate Judiciary Committee for his entire career. Yet in five years of serving with Senator Hirono on Judiciary, has he not taken the time to make sure he is saying her name correctly? Or bothered to ask his staff, rather than to publicly question Senator Hirono herself on the exact pronunciation?
To her immense credit, Senator Hirono reacted with poise. She did what she is probably used to doing—she laughed the awkward moment off and said, “I think you’ve been doing okay so far, otherwise I would have…” Her colleague, Senator Al Franken (D-MN), however, jumped in to say, “It’s actually—it’s He-row-no, Hirono.”
Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) people, along with many others with “foreign” or “difficult” names know this experience well. However, we’ve also long since learned that the issue isn’t that we’re from foreign countries—Black Americans born and raised here for generations face this problem too. It’s not that we have difficult names, either—my own last name is L-A-L: there’s not a lot of room for confusion. The reality is that names most commonly associated with White people are rendered “normal” and “acceptable,” whereas names associated with people of color are deemed “difficult,” “exotic,” and even “low-class.” Having a name that registers as non-White adds a split second of being set apart and “othered” in everyday interactions. It’s that moment when a teacher asks, “Did I say that right?”; when someone decides it’s easier to give you a nickname than to learn your name; and when a colleague of several years still can’t say your name correctly. The refusal to learn our names is a way to set us apart and remind us we are different.
While many people of color experience this awkward moment every day, it’s highlighted on the national stage every few years. In 2015, Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest Academy Awards nominee ever, the tenth Black person ever, and the first nominee born in the 21st century, became the center of media attention – not for any of these historical milestones – but because of the difficulty people had in pronouncing her name. This year, again at the Academy Awards, host Jimmy Kimmel joked how “different” Mahershala (already shortened from Mahershalalhashbaz) Ali’s name is, after the actor won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Seeing this happen again and again is deeply demoralizing.
While names like Gyllenhaal, Schwarzenegger, and Inhofe seem to roll off most Americans’ tongues, Mahershala, Quvenzhané, and Hirono still get stuck. Indian comedian Hari Kondabolu has grown so tired of the dynamic, he recorded his own bit announcing how his “career goal is to make people say [his] name properly. This kind of success is called THE GALIFIANAKIS.”
The issue isn’t the “foreign” nature of our names; how difficult they are to say; or even how famous and well-known we are, though. The issue is one of respect and acceptance. When Senator Grassley speaks to Senator Inhofe, I’m sure he knows exactly how each syllable is said. That’s how you show basic respect to your coworker—by learning their name. This is the collegiality that Senator Grassley owes Mazie Hirono. And if he can’t learn to pronounce Hirono, “Senator” will do just fine.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of If/When/How.