In the Houston Astrodome on February 6, 1967, Ernie Terrell and Muhammad Ali faced off to unify the heavyweight boxing championship of the world. The World Boxing Association had stripped Ali of his title regarding a contract dispute with Sonny Liston after refusing a rematch with the former heavyweight champion. In the meantime, Terrell won the vacant title in March 5, 1965 by beating Eddie Machen.
Ali had won the heavyweight championship in 1964 under his original name of Cassius Clay when he knocked out Liston. Right after this fight, Ali converted to Islam and asked to be identified by his Muslim name of Muhammad Ali.
Prior to the 1967 fight, Terrell refused to acknowledge Ali by his Muslim name and continued to refer to Ali as Cassius Clay.
Ali won the fight by unanimous decision and punished Terrell the entire contest to the point that afterwards, Terrell had to undergo surgery to repair a broken bone under his eye. Ring side observers claimed that Ali taunted Terrell the entire fight with the question “What’s My Name?”
What is the inclusion lesson here? Mispronouncing or incorrectly speaking as well as making fun of someone’s name demeans their identity. The cumulative effect of these micro-messages causes people to feel devalued, slighted, discouraged or excluded.
One of the biggest micro-messages I ever received about my name was from the Washington Times newspaper on August 28, 2001. They wrote the following about me in an editorial entitled “But What is a Chief Without Any Indians.” They criticized my efforts to eliminate American Indian mascots, names and team logos from the Maryland Public School System. “Richard Regan says he is an Indian of the Lumbee Cheraw tribe, though his own Christian name, of sturdy Anglo-Saxon origin, renders this claim suspicious. If he really is an Indian, his parents showed little sensitivity to Anglo-Saxon sensibilities when they appropriated the name Richard for a Lumbee child, and he shows even less regard for the common decencies by flaunting it.”
I frequently hear federal government employees taking liberty with colleague and customer names of citizens who have immigrated to the USA. They fail to realize that for people of color, and English learning employees, their names have cultural and historical significance.
Rita Kohli, assistant professor of education at the University of California at Riverside and Daniel Solorzano, professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles released a 2012 study entitled “Teachers, Please Learn Our Names!: Racial Microagressions and the K-12 Classrooms.” They found that not getting a student’s name right undermines learning and impacts their worldview and emotional well-being.
Education blogger Jennifer Gonzalez goes further by calling this mono-cultural view of dissecting names as an “act of bigotry.” She claims that people on the receiving end of these negative micro-messages receive the implication that they are different, foreign, weird, and unworthy.
One of the lasting lessons my late American Indian grandfather left me was to always be proud of my family name–even if nobody pronounces or spells it right. He would be surprised to learn the number of times I have to say the phrase “That’s Not My Name.”
It never ceases to amaze me, or fails to break my heart, when I see just how many people are willing to let others butcher their name. During my teaching years, I had many many students with names of various ethnicities, and when I’d go through the class list at the start of semester to identify people, I’d ask if I was saying it right. Few would correct me. Mostly they would say “close enough”, or a sheepish “that’s alright”. I would reply “That’s your family. That’s your heritage. I want to give it the respect it deserves.”, trying to indicate as earnestly as I could that it was important to me to show my respect for them, and begin by saying their name right. And occasionally, much to my pleasure, they would take a chance and correct me. I say “to my pleasure” because the more they corrected me, the better I got at being able to say it right the first time, without needing to put them on the spot. And there was a palpable sense of relief on their faces when someone was able to absolutely nail their name on the first try, like it was not that hard or bizarre, like it was not a “different” name, but a “normal” name. I found it distressing how many students would have two sets of names on class lists: their names given to them by their parents, and the name they would use to “fit in”. And it’s not that their “ethnic” names were all that hard to say. They were just different. But different was not what they wanted to be seen as.
When my mother passed away some decades back, I had to get some government paperwork for my dad, and was shocked to find that the name I had always known him by was not his actual name. A refugee from pre-Nazi Poland (July 1939, to be exact), he let people call him what they wanted to call him, as long as they treated him decently and paid him his wages. He was variously Ernie, Arnie, Eric, Harry, and other phonetically-related things. Again, none of which was his actual name. Ironically, his name was misspelled by the stone-cutter on his tombstone. Don’t know how that happened, but I’m gonna need to fix that.
It can seem like a trivial thing to some, but having one’s name said right, or at least having someone attempt to do so (and I realize not all phonemes are compatible with all first languages, so sometimes folks are going to try, and still mess it up despite their most sincere efforts) says that who you are, and the heritage you spring from, matters, and is of equal value to any other, and never less. That you have the right to define and be yourself, and not have to be who others think you are, or are supposed to be.
I see your point and commend your efforts. However, I am one to say “close enough.” No one would get my maiden name correct, and it wasn’t worth them feeling bad about themselves. To me, my name is just a label. I know who I am. I am an American, born and raised. My ethnicity is Swiss, German, Irish and Pennsylvania Dutch. But I do not relate to any of those, other than cooking recipes handed down over many years. What’s in a name? A rose by any other name smells as sweet…
Understood, and I see your point as well. But when it *does* matter to someone, for important reasons, we should all be ready to provide the appropriate respect. “Close enough” may well BE close enough for someone. I just don’t want to get into the habit of assuming “close enough” should be my, or everyone else’s, standard. Sometimes, all one needs to do is press the “door open” button on the elevator once to be considerate, and sometimes you have to hold it a while longer. Folks are different. I like to remember that.
Excellent piece! I will be sharing this!
“For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.” – Malcom X
To be called by the name your ancestors is one thing, to be called the name of the slavemaster is quite another. Terrell is lucky Ali didn’t knock his head clean off his shoulders.
Great article and please fix your dad’s headstone.
Richard, this reminds me of an anecdote from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, about the character Data. When the show’s chief medical officer calls him Dah-ta, rather than Day-tuh, he corrects her pronunciation. She asks, “What’s the difference?” and he replies, “One is my name, the other is not.”
Your family is lucky enough to have retained their original surname – many 20th. century immigrants to the US had their surnames officially changed at Ellis Island, like ours. Our true family name is not recorded, only the Anglicized version.