Names - Let's Get Them Right

Updated: 6 days ago


This is not a story about politics. It’s a story about good manners and respect, something we all seem to be lacking right now.

I’ve been trying to avoid election news, but when I read that Perdue Chicken distanced itself from Senator David Perdue of Georgia, I had to know why. Must be bad if the chicken people are upset with you. Turns out Senator Perdue mispronounced Kamala Harris’s first name at a rally. I’ve done the same thing. I thought the accent was on the second syllable, Ka MAH la. It’s not. It’s KA ma la. Think: comma la.

I didn’t want someone else’s take on the incident, so I watched an unedited version of the video. I am neither Republican nor Democrat, but I am tired of all the nastiness, so I really hoped Perdue just made an honest mistake. No such luck. It’s one thing to make a pronunciation error. It’s another to mock someone’s name. That’s what happened. He mispronounced Harris’s name several times then called her: “Kamala mala mala.” To make matters worse, he added a flippant, “I don’t know. Whatever.”

Racist? I’m not sure. Rude and disrespectful? One hundred percent.

About the time this story broke, I made a mistake and called one of my fifth graders by his older sibling’s name. I have a policy that if I call a student by the sibling’s name, every student in the class gets a piece of candy. This classroom policy is my way of recognizing that each student is unique and important.

I always tell my students how my mother often called me by my sisters’ names. My mother wasn’t being rude or disrespectful. She was just a woman with three girls, and I am the baby. I really didn’t mind until the day she called me “Sue,” the dog’s name. I had to draw the line.

Names are important, and we need to do our best to get them right. We live in a country known as a melting pot so not every name is going to be Stokes or Smith or Davis. As Americans we should embrace that. Certainly, we should never mock a name because it’s tricky for us to pronounce.

Maybe some good will come out of Perdue’s Kamala mala mala incident. Seems everything has a hashtag these days. I like this newest one on Twitter: #mynameis. Olympic ice skating champion Michelle Wing Kwan explains that her name means beautiful and strong and smart. She says it is not beautiful when people mock “foreign-sounding” names like hers. Representative Pramila Jayapal says she has no problem when people struggle with the pronunciation of her name, but it does bother her when people willfully and continuously get it wrong.

Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” Perdue worked with Kamala Harris for several years. He should have known better.

Maybe Kamala Harris (remember, it’s comma la) and the #mynameis movement will remind us that names are important. All of them. Many names honor a family member, and all were chosen with love.

We need to do the best we can until we know better. Then when we know better, we need to do better. I hope we will.


Click here for the audio experience of this story read by Cal Johnson.


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