We’ve all experienced that awkward moment in class, especially at the beginning of the school year, when a teacher fumbles over a name during roll call. Perhaps the teacher tries to say the name, gets it wrong, then asks the student how it’s pronounced, only to forget and mispronounce it the next time. The teacher may even go as far as to give the student a nickname without consent. For students who identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander (AAPI), and who sometimes have names written with vowels or consonants strung together in a way that those in the Western hemisphere aren’t used to seeing, this scenario hits close to home.
When a student’s name is consistently mispronounced, even unintentionally, it is disrespectful to a person and a group of people, and can set a harmful precedent. Teachers must actively try to pronounce names correctly to ensure that everyone, including AAPI students, feel valued and respected. Minimizing the significance of pronouncing a name correctly is insensitive, and can be considered a microaggression — a subtle, everyday act of discrimination.
This issue certainly permeates the classrooms in our own community at Berkeley High School (BHS). Luh Putu Cahyani Aisling Dewi, a sophomore in Academic Choice (AC), identifies as AAPI. When she was younger, Dewi’s teachers and peers started calling her ‘Chai,’ and the name stuck. As a result, many stopped trying to pronounce her full name, and Dewi has stopped correcting those who attempt to sound it out.
Names are a direct link to our heritage or identity and they are imbued with meaning. According to Dewi, her full name has Bengali, Sanskrit, and Irish roots. Dewi’s nickname ‘Chai,’ then, doesn’t accurately reflect her whole heritage. When teachers fail to create an environment in which every student’s name and, by extension, identity, is valued, students can feel othered.
Of course students should feel comfortable correcting people who mispronounce their names, but teachers must take the lead and set an example for others. Teachers are, after all, role models to their students. If classmates hear a teacher putting in the effort to get a name right, they are more likely to do the same. Teachers don’t need to be perfect, but they should show an interest in trying. This means making a consistent effort to learn more about how certain letters or sounds common in AAPI names are pronounced. After asking a student for the correct pronunciation of their name, teachers can also jot down the phonetic spelling.
We all deserve to have our names pronounced correctly, regardless of race, identity, or background. While asking the correct pronunciation of a name for the fourth time can be embarrassing, doing so allows us to see someone as a whole person.