Getting Names Right

By Ali Michael

 

Whiteness isn’t everything. You can’t necessarily tell what kind of person someone is just because you know he or she is white. But in this society (U.S.) in this moment (2017), the fact of being white is not meaningless. A great many white adults — the majority, in fact — grew up in communities that were racially segregated. This means that most white people know a whole lot about white people — how they talk, how they dress, what they find fun. It also means they know less overt things, things that don’t even seem like knowledge. For instance, white people can quickly distinguish white people, and remember white faces, better than they can people of other racial backgrounds. This is the byproduct of growing up segregated. White people know a lot about white people.

On the other hand, white people tend not to know much about people of color. This is particularly clear for white educators working with students of color. At the Race Institute for K-12 Educators, when we have panels of students of color speak about how race matters in school, the students’ responses usually comprise a litany of the microaggressions they experience. They are generally not experiencing overt racism, but they are routinely “surprising” people with their academic achievement, being asked to speak for their group or defend the actions of others who look like them, having their public image shaped largely by racial stereotypes, or being addressed by the name of a classmate of the same racial background.

The name thing is what I want to address in this piece. It seems so small, but it is so big. Names are connections to family, to culture, to community, to the core of our selves. It’s important to get them right, to pronounce them correctly, to honor them. Diversity educator Alethea White says, “I still remember every teacher who mispronounced my name.” When white educators get the names of black students wrong, or when they confuse one black student for another black student, they are committing a microaggression.

Microaggressions have a few notable characteristics:

  1. They are often not intended to be hurtful. Sometimes they are intended to be compliments. Sometimes, like when we use someone’s name, we simply intend to be respectful.
  2. They gain their power from their cumulative effect.
  3. They usually communicate a larger social message that is offensive.

Getting someone’s name wrong isn’t inherently offensive, although it is usually awkward for both parties. It has a distancing effect. It makes you wonder, “Maybe I didn’t know him (or like him) as much as I thought I did.” Last year, I called another Hebrew school parent by the wrong name in passing, kept walking, realized I did it after getting in the car, and then felt embarrassed every time I’ve seen him since. It’s awkward!

But when those of us who are white educators get the names of students of color wrong, it is more than just awkward. It is a microaggression. Why? Because it is something that has happened repeatedly for students of color. In schools with a predominately white teaching staff, many students of color are called by the wrong name (often the same wrong name) on a regular basis. And the underlying social messages are clear to the students. When you call an Asian-American student by another Asian-American student’s name, you communicate age-old tropes such as “All Asians look alike” or “Asianness is not normalˆ or “I can’t tell you apart.” The weight of those tropes, coupled to the weight of the cumulative effect, is what transforms a mistake into a microaggression.

Recently, I organized and led a Race Institute for K-12 Educators in which students spoke about the pain and alienation of being called by the wrong name. Afterward, we separated the teachers into affinity groups where the discussion turned to names. One white teacher who must have been in her late fifties said, “I get everybody’s name wrong. I get my own children’s names wrong! Names are hard for me and they get harder as I get older. I just explain to kids that I’m bad with names. I’m the worst with the blonde kids who are the same size and shape and have the same haircuts.” Others seemed to agree and to empathize.

And then it hit me. This is it. This is why it’s so hard to make change in schools. It’s hard because each individual white teacher, even the ones who want to make positive change, can justify the microaggressions they commit a thousand times over with what they believe are legitimate excuses (busyness, age, sheer exhaustion), good intentions (almost always positive, loving, caring), and logical explanations (I do this with everyone). But the microaggressions we commit are not just a lack of attention to politically correct language. They are actual microcosms of our bias and our conditioning.

When we struggle to remember the names of our students of color, this is about more than aging. In fact, in most cases, it’s primarily about living in segregated worlds. It’s literally about white educators seeing black students as looking alike, seeing Asian-American students as looking alike, and seeing Latino students as looking alike — while seeing white students as individuals. It’s evidence of living in a society in which race is used as a primary organizing principal. It’s about growing up in segregated communities in which one is used to certain conventions around naming, conventions that do not prioritize originality or uniqueness. It’s about being able to distinguish between white people better than between Latinos or Asian-Americans or blacks because of sheer exposure to white people and white people’s names.

The weight of all of this hurts students of color. It also hurts our schools and our communities. And I don’t know how quickly we can change it. But I think we have to start by recognizing that it’s not a question of whether your racism is big or little.  Every form of racism, including microaggressions, both reflects and perpetuates racism.

 

Ali Michael is co-founder and director of the Race Institute for K-12 Educators and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. More details at http://www.alimichael.org.