If You Want To Show Solidarity With The Asian Community, Learn How To Pronounce Asian Names

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty

Since the shooting in Atlanta that killed 6 Korean women, people have been wondering what they can do to uplift the AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) community. While there have been many initiatives, there are other things you can do if helping financially isn’t an option. And the most basic way to uplift and show respect is to make a concentrated effort to properly pronounce Asian names. It may seem super obvious, but there are a lot of people who don’t make a serious enough effort. And mispronouncing someone’s name can cause unnecessary mental and emotional anguish.

According to Dr. Ranjana Srinivasan, a psychologist at Manhattan VA Medical Center as well as an adjunct professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, name based microaggressions are a very specific type of a larger problem. They can include assigning a nickname without permission, making assumptions and having biases based on a person’s name, and teasing because of the cultural aspects of a person’s name. Much of Dr. Srinivasan’s research is centered around name based microaggressions, especially for those with South Asian names. Her interest in the topic came from her own experiences growing up.

“As early as four years old, my job was to make my White American teachers feel more comfortable, rather than them making time and effort to learn to pronounce my name correctly,” she explained to Psychology Today.

Xian Zhao (pronounced shee-ahn jow), a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, also does research that focuses on ethnic name pronunciation. Much like Dr. Srinivasan, Zhao believes that people consistently mispronouncing an ethnic name is a form of microaggression. He also believes it sends a message that “you are minimal.” Not bothering to properly learn a person’s name and constantly mispronouncing it makes the person feel that they aren’t a priority, or that they have no value to those around them.

If you’re not sure how to pronounce a person’s name, that’s normal. We don’t all know everything. But it’s important to at least make an effort to learn. It doesn’t have to be a whole big thing either. All you need to do is ask the person how to properly pronounce their name. You don’t need to fumble over yourself apologizing for not knowing how. Chances are, they have been through this before. But just because they’re cool about it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make an effort. Just don’t project your guilt onto the other person. It doesn’t have to be a whole thing. And if you forget, ask again! The person will be happy that you’re making a legit effort to learn.

In speaking with Psychology Today, Dr. Srinivasan explains that the participants in her study felt that people in their lives struggle the most with the cultural intricacies of their names, as well as pronunciation and spelling. For many of them, the most difficult interactions were with people in a position of authority — namely classroom teachers and company executives.

“For those participants, introducing themselves became a moment of anxiety and dread throughout their lives,” she said. “Some chose to alter their names to avoid presenting an inconvenience to people in power, while others did so to increase their own comfort in social interactions.”

Asian folks with Asian names shouldn’t feel they have to change them in any way to fit in. And yet, it’s something that happens all the time. Recent research from Zhao shows that about half of the Chinese international students studying at U.S. colleges have adopted Anglicised versions of their names. He told the BBC that this choice has a disconcerting pattern. Using their Anglo (aka white) names showed lower levels of self esteem, which can be tied to lower levels of well being. I remember having several Asian classmates as a kid who went by some white version of their names. At the time I didn’t give it much thought, but as an adult, it makes me angry that they felt they had to change their names to make white people more comfortable.

Nicknames, or any sort of abbreviations can cause some strife. But for people with Asian names, it can also be a source of pain. While it’s one thing to create a nickname for yourself to avoid having to explain what your name is, nicknames are different. For many people with Asian names, nicknames are often forced upon them. They don’t always have the option to create their own nicknames — people will give them an alternative name to get out of calling them their given name. When you’re a person of Asian descent, having a nickname bestowed on you is the ultimate microaggression. It’s not so much that people gave them a nickname, just that it was given without consent.

It should go without saying, but you should never give people with Asian names a nickname without their consent. First, you should make a serious effort to learn their given name. Then you can gently ask if there’s something they prefer to be called. You should always be following their lead when it comes to what name you use for them. Some people do have a modified version of their name that they use to make things easier. But it’s your responsibility to check with them about what they feel comfortable with. Remember, people aren’t necessarily going to advocate for themselves in this regard. So it’s on others to make sure their wishes are being respected.

Similarly to adapting to an Anglicized version of their names to make others more comfortable when speaking, people with Asian names will adapt their names in written form. Research from Stanford University and the University of Toronto shows that nearly half of Asian and Black job applicants change their names. They will use names on their resumes that have no ethnic markers. And the researchers also found that those who did “whiten” their names were twice as likely to get called back than those who didn’t.

As a Black woman with an Arabic name, I understand the struggle of those with Asian names. I spent a good portion of my tween years wishing for a whiter name that was easy to pronounce. When you have a difficult to pronounce name, there are certain things that feel irritatingly familiar. For much of my childhood, my name was a source of shame and anxiety. I am all too familiar with the feeling of a new teacher reading the attendance sheet and pausing. “I’m not sure how to say this,” or “I’m going to mess this up,” became synonymous with my name. You laugh it off, but secretly, you just want to curl up and hide.

In a piece for Education Week, former classroom teacher Punita Chhabra Rice talks about steps teachers (and other adults) can take when dealing with students with different ethnic names. She uses experiences she’s had dealing with people’s inability to pronounce South Asian names like her own to give context. If practicing beforehand is an option, use it. There are resources you can use to find out pronunciations in advance. She also suggests creating a call and response game, which could make it less uncomfortable to have them repeat it until you can say it properly.

At this point in time, there is no reason we should be mispronouncing Asian names. There are plenty of things out in the world that will show us how. And if all else fails, there’s no harm in asking. Pronouncing an Asian person’s name correctly shows them that you respect them. All people want is to be shown respect. So if you can make an effort to pronounce an Anglicized name, you can make the same effort with Asian names.