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“School is one of the first places that children look to find acceptance and community from,” writes VOX ATL’s Zariah Taylor. “That experience can be difficult when people don’t make the effort to learn your name or mispronounce it on purpose. “

Art illustration by Zariah Taylor

“Hello, My Name Is___:” What It’s like Having An Ethnic Sounding Name

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My name is Zariah (pronounced zar-ree-uh.). I was named after the character Zaria from the sitcom, “The Parenthood.” However, my mom accidentally added the “h” to my birth certificate, and because of that one mistake, my name has been mispronounced my entire life. 

I’ve been called various names in my life, such as Zachary, Zion, Zariyah, Zumba — just to name a few. What you choose to call yourself is a huge part of your identity, so when people mispronounce it, it can often feel hurtful. Keyallah {key-ah-luh}, 16, said that, “My whole life has been filled with assumptions and discrimination because of my name. My ethnicity, religion and race are always called into question. It’s conflicting because I never know if they’re interested in understanding me as an individual, or looking for something to make a judgment upon.” 

School is one of the first places that children look to find acceptance and community from. That experience can be difficult when people don’t make the effort to learn your name or mispronounce it on purpose. 

“I feel annoyed when people mispronounce my name,” said Tamara {tuh-mare-uh}, 17, whose name means “Greek princess.” “I was bullied for it, too. Teachers did it often and so did some classmates. I got tired of correcting. You can’t pronounce ‘Tamara’ but can pronounce ‘Leonardo Dicaprio’? One teacher mispronounced it on purpose and called me ‘tomato’ in elementary school. It’s stuck with me all throughout middle school. It was so annoying because people never took me seriously.” 

“Sometimes they mispronounce it (with uncertainty) and will not make any effort to ask if they’re correct or not,” Keyallah said. “It’s tiring to have to constantly repeat myself and remind teachers whose class I’ve been in for half a semester how to pronounce my name. It’s something that I’ve come to expect. If I meet 10 new people in one day, chances are that nine of them will mispronounce my name, especially if they aren’t a person of color.” 

Having a complicated or ethnic-sounding name is bigger than just getting it mispronounced. It can also lead to discrimination. In one study, researchers found that “job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback.” 

A study from UCLA suggested that “names that are most easily identifiable as ‘black names’ also send a signal about that person’s social status.” In an article from the Harvard Business School, an Asian applicant said  “she put her ‘very Chinese-sounding’ name on her resume in her freshman year, but only got noticed after subbing in her American nickname later.” Another study from the British Academy reports that, “Minority ethnic applicants and white applicants with non-English names have to send on average 60 percent more applications to get a positive response from an employer than a white person of British origin.” 

A few days ago, a TikTok video of a woman who claims to work in a Human Relations department went viral. The woman, who calls herself an “HR Advocate” and “Life Strategist,”  recommended that people with “hood” or “hard to pronounce” names use their middle name on resumes and code switch to get in the door. “When we see a name that’s, I don’t know, hard to pronounce, or has a ‘la’ ‘ka’ and ‘iqua’ on it, we are judging you,” she said. 

Having to deal with this type of discrimination can often lead you to resent your name. When I was younger, I always hated my name to the point where in elementary school, I started spelling my name wrong on purpose. My teacher had to pull me aside and call my mom about it. I promised myself that as soon as I turned 18, I would get it legally changed. 

Zenobia, 16, whose full name is Zenobia Abudu-Abrams {zen-o-bee-uh aboo-doo a-brums}, had a similar experience. “For a long time, and even a bit now, I resented my first last name, Abudu. People I went to school with would always make fun of how African it sounded and teachers would always horribly mangle it, especially when I was called for awards. By about sixth grade, I stopped heading my papers with Abudu and I became Zenobia Abrams.” 

It took me a long time before I accepted and came to love my name. Instead of focusing on the different ways people mispronounced my name, I tried to focus on my name’s beautiful meanings, such as “radiance,” “flower” and “sunrise.” I’m proud of the fact that my name is unique. 

Sanaa Dais, whose name is pronounced {suh-nah days}, said, “I actually have hated my name at one point in my life. At some point I came to the conclusion that my name is who I am and will forever be a part of me. I decided to learn more about it instead of trying to avoid it. 

“Up until recently, I didn’t even know the correct pronunciation of my name,” Keyallah said. “I’ve always settled for what sounds closest or allowed them to use a nickname. After speaking with my parent, she told me the original pronunciation of it but also that it’s my name and because of its uniqueness, I’m free to choose how I want it to be pronounced. People don’t really get to choose their name so I kind of look at it as a blessing in disguise. It’s nice to be able to decide for myself how I want to be identified.” 

“To me, my last name carries special meaning as I have both my parents last names, Abudu and Abrams,” Zenobia said. “Both bring out my African/European heritage and I feel very grateful to have this special mix within me. Now that I’m older, I know so much more about who I am and where I’m from. For the most part, I’m proud of my long African/European name and I make it a point to correct people if they say it wrong.” 

Although it may not be a big deal to some, mispronouncing someone’s name on purpose can be damaging. Taking the time out to learn someone’s name might make them feel heard and seen. You never know if you’re the first person in someone’s life to pronounce their name correctly, and in doing so you’re making a positive impact.

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comments (2)

  1. Zlar Vixen

    By “white” I assume you mean Anglo names? Because many white immigrants also have very hard to pronounce names.

  2. Dad

    You were named Zariah by me. 🥰 It means flower in Africa and radiant light in Arabic. We chose Ella for your middle name from Tash’s mom. Excellent article!