Three minority teenage girls taking part in NPR affiliate KUOW’s Advanced Producers Workshop for teenagers participated in a segment last week on how Americans have difficulties pronouncing their names, and how our collective failure to articulate foreign words makes them feel as people of color. The segment is titled “The racist practice of mispronouncing names”—because apparently something unintentional and not likely malicious can be deemed racist—and was deservingly “ratioed” on Twitter.
Names are important, of course. American adolescents are notorious for going through stages of playing around with their given names, or even changing them completely. That the three presumably recent or semi-recent immigrant girls elected to keep theirs is telling. The mess is not the girls’ fault, but falls on an outlet and adults who encourages grievance mongering and hyperbolic ways of presenting such an issue.
I have no idea what experiences of racial minorities are like. As a Jew, I transcend the narrow, limiting social constructs of race. Since my very existence dismantles every trying intersectional theory, many intersectionalists have a difficult time with people like me.
From Yekaterina to Cathy to Katya
Yet I can almost relate to the public radio teen trio. I came to the United States as a 17-year-old and was deposited directly into a high school I can best describe as a zoo. To complicate my zoo transition problems, my family had entered my first name into the roster as Yekaterina—the transliteration of my full name begotten by Soviet bureaucracy. I suspect many readers are already breaking out in a cold sweat as they attempt to sound it out.
I had a lot of explaining to do every time a new teacher read my name off the roll. It was even worse than you think, because Yekaterina is made up of ten letters, but only nine fit into the roster, so the final a got chopped off. Given that I was always firmly on the sex-normative side, I felt deeply embarrassed and marginalized, as if the Soviet and American bureaucracies had colluded to reduce my persona to some soulless, genderless arrangement of letters. So, one day I resolved that I had had enough, and that I was going native, changing to Cathy.
When I announced this to my art teacher, he laughed. I’d previously instructed him to shorten my name to Katya. I had to instruct every teacher because it wasn’t immediately obvious to them that Katya is short for Yekaterina (or that adults sometimes call teens nicknames).
English speakers tend to get lost in transliterated varietals of Cyrillic names. Remember trying to keep track of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s characters with their endlessly mutating monikers? This is so bad with you people that Wiki has to generously provide a chart to clarify that Dostoevsky’s character Sonya, Sofia Semenovna, and Sonechka Marmeladova all refer to the same person. As a mother, I am far more concerned that my children might be discouraged from reading the classics by such trivialities than I am about the next generation stumbling on a friend with a difficult nickname. They’ll figure out the second, no problem.
If reading Dostoevsky might be too much for some of my new compatriots, it’s only fair that I didn’t get the North American cultural references. So it was up to my art teacher to inform me that Cathy is a neurotic woman in a comic strip, and that I’m Katya. That was one of the most valuable tips I have been given in my entire life. Talk about making a positive difference in students’ lives!
Keeping my name meant, however, having to spell it every time I meet someone new—no big deal, really. Many Americans with unusually spelled names have to go through the same ritual. It also meant dealing with the fact that the native-born are not able to pronounce it correctly because there is no soft t followed by ya in English.
Life Is Full of Trade-Offs
That’s a trade-off: those who want exotic names have to contend with some degree of confusion. If a woman can’t tolerate this type of confusion, she should probably anglicize it, which, incidentally, remains a standard practice among the East Asians whose tonal languages inevitably get marauded around here.
One of the NPR teens cheerfully described her anxiety on the steps of a coffee shop because baristas never know how to spell and pronounce her name. She described a head game she plays on baristas, giving her name as “Billie.” She insists it’s always obvious that the servers don’t believe she’s Billie, but, being compliant Americans, they go along with her request. This is odd, considering that the nickname sounds jazzy and gender-neutral, and, therefore, perfectly appropriate for a Gen Zer.
Another NPR student chirped about the clueless microaggression-perpetuating teachers who pause when they see her name. Please see above. We Eastern Europeans, with multisyllabic names heavy on consonant clusters, and further burdened by patronymics, know.
I’m not complaining, actually. There is such thing as lived experience of Central Europeans and people of Central European descent. I own a really cool book about American fashion history by the Chicago-born writer Linda Przybyszewski. As I stare at the book on my shelf, I keep reminding myself to get a Polish girlfriend to coach me to say Przybyszewski.
The MENA-plus public radio interviewees never had these problems. Their names are somewhat inelegant, but easy to sound out. If teachers pause when calling the roll, it’s probably out of abundance of caution: they are being polite. Or because they sense a grievance-heavy attitude, and are trying not to disturb the hornet’s nest. I can guarantee that, after being helped to correct pronunciation, the teachers complimented girls on their beautiful names.
These girls get compliments like that all the time. I can guarantee that too.
Don’t Condemn Innocent Errors
When American parents, even the most conservative ones, pick names for their kids, they look for something unusual, but not too long or too difficult to figure out. What the teens have fits the bill perfectly. They also have authentic background to boot: a perfect conversation-starter that will serve them well in all manner of situations.
That chat they transmitted on the radio should have stayed in a powder room. It was too trivial to run, and backed up by vacuous “racism” talk that was overstated, to say the least. The adults who presumably approved the segment and worked with them on it should not be so focused on making mountains out of molehills or perpetuating micro-aggression culture, which blows so many things out of proportion.
The reason Americans have a difficulty with foreign names in the first place is our country’s diversity. When society is diverse and multilingual, as people try to understand each other, there will be confusion about spelling certain words, and some sounds will be mangled. The three girls are empowered to chat about their unusual foreign names because they know their names are cool. They are cool precisely because our society generally promotes diversity and welcomes strangers.
From my refugee perspective, I want Americans to be confident, culturally literate advisers, like my art teacher was to me. People like that help us navigate life in a new country, and I highly appreciate their command of zeitgeist and efforts to help. Public radio segments like these might reduce their interest in doing so, to our detriment.