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Mispronouncing Kids' Names Can Leave Lasting Scars

As I watched my own kids graduate from elementary school and middle school this week, I found myself tensing up when an Asian student walked across the stage. Then I realized why: I was bracing myself for the butchering of names and the snickers from the audience. Even though my mind had stuffed the memories of childhood name teasing into a dark compartment somewhere, my body remembered.

"Ha-way-eng?"

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The class erupted into laughter. Granted, the math teacher—who looked like an older, rounder, more doddery version of the cartoon character Dilbert—was an easy target for a bunch of high school sophomores, but I shrank into my seat, knowing my last name was part of the joke, too. And if the teacher thought my last name was impossible to pronounce, he'd probably just shrug or ignore it when my classmates teased me.

When the teacher doesn't bother to learn how to pronounce a child's name correctly, he's sending the message that the name is weird and sub-par.

We live in San Jose, Calif., the same city where I attended high school. The array of names called out at graduation reflect our community's wonderful diversity of Latin, Asian, African and European origins. And if you think that living in a multicultural community protects kids from being singled out for having an unusual (read: non-English) name, think again.

Having a teacher mispronounce a name—and worse, brushing it off as a not a big deal because the name is so unusual—is still so common in this area, that local students from Downtown College Prep Alum Rock High School have created the My Name, My Identity campaign with the hashtag #MyNameMyID. The teens are teaming up with the Santa Clara County Office of Education, the National Association for Bilingual Educators and McGraw-Hill Education to call attention to how important a name is to a child's growing identity, especially for kids who are English language learners.

A new study by Rita Kohli of Santa Clara University and Daniel Solórzano of UCLA, says the mispronunciation of ethnic names amounts to microagressions, "subtle daily insults, that as a form of racism, support a racial and cultural hierarchy of minority inferiority." In other words, when the teacher doesn't bother to learn how to pronounce a child's name correctly, he's sending the message that the name is weird and sub-par.

Kohli and Solórzano argue that mispronouncing or changing a name can negate the significance of the name, the connection to the child's ancestors and the identity of the child. Hearing these microagressions again and again, along with jokes like "Affirmative action must still be in place," drives the message that they do not belong, and worse, some kids actually start to believe the message and "doubt their place or cultural worth in U.S. society."

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As for my family name, Hwang, it's anything but unusual; it's one of the top 10 most common Chinese surnames and it means yellow, making it no more exotic than the last names Brown or White. As an adult, I've learned to make sure people know how to pronounce my name if I'm going to be introduced at a function (imagine that it's spelled "hwong"), because I can still hear my high school math teacher's voice echoing in my head.

Photograph by: Santa Clara County Office of Education

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