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The Skin I’m In: Dear Black Girl With the Big Name

Authors: Dr. Stacia’ Alexander, LPC-S | Juliana Collins, LSW| Dara Winley, PhD

When you think of your name, what comes to mind? Power, legacy, your future? Most times, names are connected to our sense of self and identity. A person’s name is an extension of who they are or who they are called to be. Names cultivate individuality and even represent a person’s purpose. Names can hold unique stories connected to the person who named them, their culture, language, or religion. It also informs you of the person or people who named them. As Black women, names closely align with our self-esteem and how we see ourselves in the world. There is great pride in our names as they hold honor, dignity, and regard for the story we will share with the world.

The role of self-esteem and identity in names  

There comes a time when Black girls and women pick up on the passive disrespect from people who rush over their names, mispronounce them, or abbreviate them without regard for how it may impact their self-esteem.  And it is at this juncture; they muster the confidence to repeat their name with more emphasis to garner the respect owed to them regardless of the challenge in pronouncing it. 

Building the confidence to correct people yields a strange balance between irritation and understanding that some take years to perfect.  The reality– some names are harder to grasp if you’re unfamiliar with a particular language or dialect. There is an inevitability in stumbling at initial attempts to pronounce an unfamiliar name. What is not reasonable is the disrespect and disregard people can exhibit when corrected with the proper pronunciation.   Therein lies the foundation of why such a discussion is even needed regarding the importance of appreciating the other person’s essence enough to pronounce their name correctly.  The journey to confidence stems from appreciating one’s own individuality enough to protect it even when others do not. 

Black girls should be encouraged to respectfully and assertively correct people to pronounce their names properly at a young age.  Each encounter serves as an opportunity to stand in the uniqueness of who she is. Through practice, she will build confidence that will encourage others to appreciate the rarity of her name rather than a shrug in frustration that they are being forced outside of their comfort zone. 

When it’s prounounced wrong…

On the other side of the experience is assuring people it is perfectly normal and asking how to pronounce unencountered names correctly.  There is more power in connecting through a request than in disregard.  A simple “How do you pronounce your name?” can be a bridge between differences than running quickly over a name to avoid appearing ignorant, dismissive, or disrespectful.  Regardless of community, background, or affiliation, people thrive when they feel wanted and respected. Likewise, the system thrives – not just the recipient.  The few extra seconds it takes to request instruction are valuable stepping stones for growth that many of us need in our lives. The following section will provide strategies for crossing that bridge in asking how to pronounce unusual names correctly. 

Tips and Tricks on Pronouncing Names Correctly

Now that we know why names are important, how important do you think it is to learn how to say it correctly?  Very. There are already so many ways Black women are dismissed and minimized in the dominant society, and the least we can do is learn how to say a person’s name. Sometimes others have names that people are not familiar with, which increases the likelihood of it being mispronounced. While this may be awkward and uncomfortable to address, it will help if you take intentional steps to learn the pronunciation upfront.  I have experienced when people take too long to ask you, they create a name for you which makes it difficult to accept the correct pronunciation. If you get stuck, you can take a few tips when learning how to say a name correctly.

Be honest. Start by naming the challenge you are having. Naming the problem can look like stating, “I do not know how to pronounce your name correctly.”

Ask for help. You can say things like: “how do you pronounce your name?” “I am struggling with pronouncing your name correctly. Can you help me?” 

Listen to the correct pronunciation. Slow down and take time to listen to what you are hearing. Sometimes it can help to record the correct pronunciation and listen to it repeatedly. Also, you can spend time practicing the name out loud or use a visual to prompt the proper pronunciation.

Extend an apology and make efforts to continue learning. Make efforts to apologize and acknowledge that you got it wrong. I have gotten messages (both verbal and written) saying, “Hey, I realized I have been saying your name incorrectly, and I apologize. That was not my intention.” That was greatly appreciated and contributed to feeling seen and heard by the other person.

When you continue to mispronounce someone’s name, it can be a sign that you are not listening to the correction or are not caring to do so, which sends mixed messages. Instead, take time to learn and show appreciation of the various names around! It’s far more than a common courtesy as it increases a sense of belonging and being known. 

Additionally, for parents looking to find ways to teach their children how to correct their name, here are a few kid-friendly tips to think about: 

  1. Help kids find fun ways to learn their names, so they feel inspired to share with others. This will increase the pride and regard for their name, making them eager to share with others. Also, it’s enjoyable when their name shows up in a song or street name to help other kids retain faster. 
  2. Practice potential scenarios at home to walk through practical steps your child can take at daycare or school. Get creative and have each family member act a role so you can increase confidence in correcting. 
  3. Model, Model, Model! The more a child sees their parents advocating and standing up for themselves, the more likely they will follow this same approach. You can model to your child it is appropriate to correct someone in a kind and respectful way! 

Ultimately, If we value something, we must be held accountable for our actions directed toward that something. Value implies importance and worth. No name is more valuable than another, and all names should be pronounced correctly. With names, aiming to pronounce them properly is our way of being held accountable. Doing so gives power back not only to your name but to mispronounced names everywhere. 

Holding others accountable requires an ability to share with them directly. Being straightforward is a strength that tends to get overlooked, and regarding black women, it generally holds a negative connotation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with telling someone, “It’s _____,” or, “It’s pronounced ______.” If you’re feeling timid or uncomfortable with being blunt, have no fear! The beauty in the language is that there are endless ways to convey a message. A few ways to less directly correct someone could sound something like, “It’s actually pronounced like this, _____,” or “People confuse it all the time, it’s actually ____.” Another underrated way to communicate is through facial expressions or body language. Not only are they universal, but they are how we communicate the most. A smile and nod might tell someone that they pronounced your name correctly, for example. 

We can all take notes from Olympic sprinter, Sha’Carri Richardson and we owe her all the respect in pronouncing every syllable of her name.