Blog: Can You Say My Name? On Names, Culture & Identity

By Aakanksha Gupta

It was the second day of my last semester at college, and I was in a class that I had been looking forward to all year. But my eagerness didn’t soothe my anxiety when the professor announced that he would do a roll call followed by introductions. During my time in Amherst, MA, I became accustomed to professors’ blank stares and discomfort prior to saying my name. The anxiety surrounding this, what should have been a simple interaction, became evident from both ends.

“Michaela, John, Lindsay, uh….” After a significant pause, I jumped in to rescue myself (and my teacher) with “it’s uh-kaank-shaa”, so that I could avoid possibly being called ‘Gupta’ or having my name mispronounced. I was then met with a familiar relieved smile before he returned to effortlessly reciting the rest of the class roster.

I continue to remind myself that ‘Aakanksha’ is not a common name in the US, and I should be prepared for people to struggle while saying it. I try to remember that educators have a large number of students, and it must be quite the task to learn so many names every academic year.

Here’s something many people don’t know: ‘Aakanksha’ is Sanskrit for ‘a wish’. While I try to be mindful of where other people are coming from, my wish is that those with less common names would not have to dread introductions. I wish that people wouldn’t look at me frantically when I pronounce my name slowly for them, or ask me if I have a nickname instead. It took some time to acknowledge that I felt embarrassed about being an inconvenience, and guilty about the effort people had to make during such interactions.

It took even longer to ask myself an important question: Why do I need to feel apologetic for something that is a significant part of my cultural identity, and of myself? I often wonder how fellow Indians, as well as other immigrant-origin youth, navigate the personal meanings of their names here. I also wonder, what are teachers doing to help students with similar struggles? What are strategies that teachers can use to support these students in school environments?

Here at Re-imagining Migration:

Earlier, we published Names, Identity, and Immigration to address the role that names play in conveying our identities. We’re revisiting this discussion in the new year because it has become all the more relevant to countering increasing reports of bias and discrimination, particularly in school environments.

Why are names important?
Names can tell us a lot about a person and their connections to their race, cultural identity and their family’s migration experiences.

According to this article by Punita Chhabra Rice of Improving South Asian American Students’ Experiences (ISAASE), the National Education Association reports that undermining the importance of pronouncing a name correctly is a type of microaggression, which is an instance of day-to-day discrimination students often face in classrooms. While some are uncomfortable with the term, there is no doubt that such incidents reflect the implicit and explicit biases that educators, as well as peers, often hold. This becomes especially common with immigrant-origin students and students of color.

“And what about you, Gogol? Do you want to be called by another name?”

— The Namesake

Why this quote?
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake, Mrs. Lapidus, an elementary school principal, makes a clear effort to ask the main character, Gogol, which name he prefers to go by. This puts Gogol at ease, and allows him to have control over his primary means of identification in school. This is a crucial consideration for students, especially immigrant-origin youth, who internalize stereotypes and negative attitudes — about themselves and their cultural identifiers — that are reinforced through media, peers, educators and surrounding communities.

Mispronunciation can cause students to feel embarrassment or shame, thus potentially creating a separation between themselves and their cultures and families. In general, a lack of culturally responsive teaching can negatively impact students’ learning and well-being in school. You can learn more about this in our guide, A Culturally Responsive Guide to Fostering the Inclusion of Immigrant Origin Students.

Below are strategies that we learned from the ISAASE Name Pronunciation Guide for Teachers, a guide created by ISAASE, and Becoming American: Exploring Names and Identities, a lesson plan from Facing History.

Be prepared:

  • Go through your roster in advance to be aware of possibly challenging pronunciations, and practice saying them.
  • Make the list available to your class, and encourage all your students to pronounce their names for their peers and you. Avoid publicly singling out students with less common names.

Plan classroom activities:

  • Create opportunities for students to learn more about each other, including names and backgrounds.
  • Facing History suggests a ‘Class Identity Chart’, which can encourage your students to find commonalities in their names, family background and migration histories.
  • Consider doing free-writes while also providing the option of other creative ways of expressing personalities and identity. You could use a quote to prompt your students to reflect on their names, whether their first name, last names, nickname or entire name.

Build trust one-on-one:

  • Ask students which names they prefer to go by. There are students who may prefer pronunciations that their families use, or prefer Westernized ones.
  • ISAASE asks teachers to consider that students often provide these pronunciations for their benefit and comfort, and not necessarily the teacher’s, so listen carefully when they share their preferences with you.
  • Remember that students who have encountered mispronunciations may come up with pronounceable alternatives, in which case it is even more important for you to be mindful.

Grow your cultural competence:

  • In general, take the time to learn about and be open to your students’ cultural backgrounds, heritages and languages. Show your students that you recognize their strengths, rather than viewing them through a deficit lens.
  • The effort to pronounce students’ names correctly is an essential part of culturally responsive teaching.  
  • In our Culturally Responsive Teaching Checklist, we highlight ways to ensure that that culturally responsive pedagogy is incorporated into your teaching. Here are a few questions to consider:
  1. Media: Do you explore resources and texts that present multicultural perspectives?
  2. Curriculum: In lectures and discussions, do you highlight multicultural perspectives and figures, as opposed to focusing on dominant narratives and cultures?
  3. Linguistics: When necessary, do you code switch with students, to establish rapport and facilitate understanding?

Below are selected links to resources that you can use to enhance your knowledge and initiate conversations about names, identity, and integration:

Let us know if you found these resources helpful, and please feel free to send us any suggestions. We are hoping to learn from the great work that you many of you have already begun.