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Name Shaming: Racism and Cultural Gaslighting

Updated: May 3


Child wearing a hijab, Black girl with two afro puffs, and Aisan boy all lying on thier stomachs sharing a book together

If you’ve read some of the other articles on this site, you have seen quite a few on understanding race, the development of race categorizations in infancy and early childhood, and the effects of racism throughout adulthood, to name a few. Most, if not all of those articles have used examples of antiBlack racism because all of them were written by me and I am Black. I believe that people should tell their own stories, report research from their communities, and only enter into spaces where they are not a community member when they are invited. This does not imply that only Black people experience racism. To the contrary, racialized people experience the effects of racism.


Unless you have purposely tried to avoid the news since the start of the Coronavirus global pandemic, you have seen coverage regarding the rise of antiAsian racism and violence. Racism against Asian communities is not a new phenomenon. Li Zhou reported on the history of AntiAsian racism in the United States, and the organization Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander hate (Stop AAPI Hate) reported nearly 3,000 instances of violence against people in Asian communities in 2020. The rise of this information making its way to the top of my social media feed, led me to find a thread that resonated with me on a cultural level, rather than a race-related one. Yes, cultural. I know this gets confusing for some people because Black people are a race and Black people have cultures that are expressed differently based on location.


Anyway, what about cultural practices that are passed down for generations only to find their descendants being bullied, alienated, ridiculed, and discriminated against? Cultural practices such as naming babies. Sadly, it is a common practice to mistreat and engage in microaggressions against people in the United States when it comes to their names depending on which cultural group a name originated. Microaggressions are brief racial or cultural insults that occur frequently for individuals who have intersecting identities (Sue, 2010).

Although countless institutions claim and set goals to increase diversity, there is still very little effort in addressing the contemporary and more implicit racism (Holder, Jackson & Ponterotto, 2015). How we treat people based on their name is one of them. A recent tweet by @mjmmichellekim highlighted the immediate need for me to write about name shamining and its effects on emotional wellbeing.


Based on True Events: Name Shaming


On the school playground a little girl argues with other children telling them to stop trying to give her a nickname. In a middle school science class, an adolescent girl stands her ground when her teacher calls all of the other students by their preferred names but refuses to do the same for her. In a high school history class, a teenage girl hears a substitute teacher butcher her name during roll call, for the umpteenth time, so badly that the other students told the teacher that there was no one by that name enrolled in the class. The girl raised her hand and said, “Here. I think she’s talking about me.” An article writer who submitted a manuscript for publication and they misspelled both her first and last name so horrendously that even she wasn’t sure they meant to publish her. A colleague was invited by a major organization to join their diversity and inclusion committee. Bad news, in the email invitation they misspelled her name. A highly educated and well-respected educator had her name misspelled on an invitation that was inviting an organization's members to a 6-hour professional development workshop that she had co-designed. A postdoctoral fellow (e.g., a trainee) was laughed at and gaslighted by her supervisor as an act of dismissal when she asked for a different ID so that her name could be spelled correctly. Yet, when the supervisor's name was misrepresented on a document, she made the institution reprint it. The fellow commented how the two situations were similar and how it does not feel welcoming when seeing your name incorrect. The supervisor was left speechless.


With the exception of two events, all of those things happened to me, and that is barely the tip of the iceberg.

Who is affected by name shaming?


  • Children who are learning to express autonomy.


  • Members of the LGBTQIA+ community who are navigating things like dead naming.


  • People who are Muslim, members of Islam or who have Arabic names are confronting descriminiation on many levels.


  • Students who identify as Latinx or Latine and may be from places like Puerto Rico are combating being renamed or having their two last names forced into hyphenation or erasure.


  • Asian Americans who are fighting to have their names pronounced correctly and end the practice of getting any “American name” - (e.g., a whitewashed name).


  • Anyone who immigrated here and experienced being renamed on their government issued identifications because supposedly their names wouldn’t fit on the forms.


  • Those who are indigenous to this land. Indigenous people fighting for the right to have their names pronounced and acknowledged in spaces outside of their communities.


  • Black people who have beautiful culturally Black names fighting against being renamed, again, having their names be called “ghetto,” having their names mispronounced and misspelled and being told that it is not a big deal.


  • Trainees, employees - people who are already marginalized.


  • Humans. Humans are affected by name shaming.


Here is a powerful spoken word poem that says in the most powerful way.



What you can do to stop name shaming:


  • Slow down. When we reply quickly, especially to emails and texts, we are less likely to pay attention to details than when we are moving with thoughtful intent.


  • Learn the spelling of people’s names.


  • When someone tells you their name or the name of someone important to them say something like, “Your name is important to me. Can I take a moment to learn how to pronounce it correctly, please?” Wait for their response and then ask them to correct you each and every time that you get it wrong. It will help you learn.


  • If you write their name incorrectly or autocorrect betrays you, immediately send a message with their name spelled correctly. Apologize for your action and let them know that you have a plan to avoid it from happening again. If they have emailed you before, copy and paste their name when you are afraid you will still make a mistake.


  • Stop asking people what their names mean just because it is not a name that you know. If they want you to know that their name has a meaning that they want to share, they will tell you. Uzo Aduba’s message is clear.



  • No need to make things awkward. If you forget someone’s name, apologize right away and ask them to tell you again. Write it down or save it someone the second time so that you know it for the future.


Takeaways


It is far from okay when you refuse to learn the pronunciation of someone’s name. No, you may not give someone a nickname or rename them because you think their name is hard to remember. It is not okay when you misspell someone’s name without apologizing and making a plan to avoid doing it again. It is wrong to make fun of someone’s name, to alienate them, to accuse parents of not loving their children due to the beautiful name that they passed on to their child.


As we grow in the era of antiracism and social justice, we must aim to be expansive in the most basic interactions. If you ever email me, you will see a message under my signature. It has been there for over seven years. Read it. Know it. Embody it. “*Culturally Responsive Practice Note: Names have value. The proper spelling of names including capitalizations, punctuations, and spacing is always essential.*”


I have a Black name that I love, and one that is constantly discriminated against even in subtle ways. Though all but two of the examples presented here were of my own experiences, this problem exists across too many communities. This common practice reveals acts of microaggression, racism, and xenophobia that meet at the intersection of many identities. That is why this post was needed.


PlayfulLeigh,

Dr. Dowtin


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Here's one last video, just in case this article left you wanting one more clever explanation of the problem of name shaming. Thanks, Amber Ruffin, for honoring Vice President, Kamala Harris' name.