What's in a Name?

January 12, 2016

Composed in 1998

What’s in a Name?
Self-Respect, Validation of My Identity, and a Sense that My Teachers Care

Dr. Khyati Y. Joshi


Growing up Indian in America, I was proud of my culture. I joined my parents and their Indian friends for holiday celebrations and in working to create an Indian cultural center in Atlanta, my home town. I loved being Indian as much as I loved being American. Nevertheless, I hated my name. (It’s pronounced key-YAH-tee.)

It’s no secret that students rue the appearance of a substitute teacher. Students know they’re probably staring down the barrel of a long hour of worksheets or of watching the substitute struggle bewildered through an overly-ambitious lesson plan. For me it meant another excruciating session of “butcher-my-name.” “Robert Allen, Will Bartlett, Shana Brown...” As she worked her way down the alphabetical class roster, I knew what was coming. “Mark Josephs...” The a pause. A long pause. “K... K... Ki...” Each mispronunciation – and there seemed to be infinite varieties – was like nails on a chalkboard.

Every September brought another round of scrunched-up noses from teachers finding my “weird” name on their class rosters. Mean-spirited classmates spent hours coming up with every possible mispronunciation. During the years when all children are struggling to find their own identity, to find a way to fit in and to find the positive in themselves, I was repeatedly asked, “Why don’t you have a normal name?” My middle school science teacher, actively made fun of my name — calling me “caddy.” My eighth grade civics teacher misspelled my name on a handout — putting an “o” in place of the “a” — and inadvertently gave me a hurtful nickname that would chase me all the way to graduation: “coyote.”

Even earlier on, I had bought into the idea that my name was just too hard to say — that it was too “weird” and I couldn’t expect my classmates or teachers to pronounce it correctly. I sometimes even apologized for having the name I did. Still in elementary school, I bit my lip in shame and decided I need to change my name to make it easier for them to say. Although I never stopped spelling my name correctly, I began introducing myself as Kathy. One might say, “Oh Khyati , you found a solution.” But no, I didn’t. It is difficult to convey in words how each “Kathy” chiseled away at my sense that who I am is okay. When something as basic as my name isn’t okay, what about my culture? My religion? My mother’s accent, and the sari she wears to formal occasions?

I was suffering a humiliation, a robbery of self-image and self-worth, that thousands of students in America face alone every year. Saying someone’s name affirms who they are, affirms that they have value in the eyes of the speaker.

A student of mine, a Chinese American undergraduate named Chai, faced the same teasing growing up. He spent his childhood wishing he had “some normal, Anglo name.” Growing up in Indiana, my friend Neha always wished she could be Melanie instead. Melanie was a “cooler” name, she said. Neha was “too weird.” To be called by one’s own name must become fundamental right, because when that right is violated the impact reverberates through a person’s life — affecting her sense of personal pride and of cultural self-respect, her social development during the crucial “belonging” years of primary and secondary school, and even her academic performance.

There is no substitute for getting someone’s name right. I spent nearly an hour last month with a physical therapist, and she never spoke my name. When she called me into the room, it was with a hand motion and the words, “your turn.” Maybe she thought that if she used enough pronouns, I wouldn’t notice her avoiding my name. Wrong! It is painfully obvious when people are trying to avoid using my name; I become “you,” “she” and “her” more often than any Jane or Kristen I know. When I helped run a National Conference for Community and Justice ‘Anytown’ program last summer, one participant spoke up in our final group meeting and thanked each counselor by name... right up to “James and the other co-director.”

When teachers and health care workers and students who are supposed to be learning to celebrate diversity go out of their way to avoid saying my name, it shows that there’s a problem here that only education — beginning with teachers themselves — can solve.

Because by avoiding my name, you show that you don’t really care about me — that who I am doesn’t matter to you. And that’s not a message any of us, especially educators, should be sending to the people around us.

What can educators do? Here are some suggestions on ways for educators to help students avoid or overcome these damaging experiences:


1. Take the time to learn names properly, and respond positively to “interesting” and “unique” names. Take a few private moments with a student to learn his name. Ask simply, “Could you pronounce your name for me? I don’t want to mess it up.” Listen carefully. Practice a few times with the child and be very open to correction — “Is that right? Am I saying it correctly?” This interaction can also be a chance to learn more about a student’s language and culture. “What does your name mean? Where does it come from? Is that where your family is from?”

Offer positive feedback. A few uplifting words can make a huge difference for a child with an unusual name. Just as many of us can recount vividly the hurtful remarks we suffered as children, we also remain profoundly affected by the positive. When he was in seventh grade, Chai — my Chinese American student — bragged to a friend’s mother about his plans to change his name. She responded, “But Chai, you have such a beautiful name. It’s part of what makes you so unique. It is a wonderful name.” Those few kind words of encouragement and validation — in this case, from a white American adult — “turned it around for me,” says Chai. “I haven’t thought about changing my name even once since then.”

2. Express to students that it is okay to correct your pronunciation. Tell them, “If I say it wrong, tell me. I’ll try to get it right the next time.” Understand how difficult it is for students of some cultural backgrounds to question or correct a teacher. In my culture, for example, you can correct people who are younger than you. But older people must be respected. For many young people it is either respect or correct. One, or the other. And even leaving cultural issues aside, it is just personally draining to be constantly correcting others. As an adult and a teacher, you are a leader and must be the one who exerts the extra energy to seek the correct information.

Don’t be scared or put off by a name you can’t pronounce the first few times. No one is immune to this: I have a lot of trouble with Slavic and Southeast Asian names. So I practice and ask and practice and ask until I get it right.

Most of all, remember that the trouble you’re having pronouncing my name is not “my problem.” I didn’t think up this name just to stump you, and I’m not going to change it to ease your frustration. At a well known restaurant in Hadley, Massachusetts, a hostess asked me for my name. I gave her my last name. “Joshi.” She looked a little bit confused and asked for my first name. Okay, I thought, you asked for it. “Khyati.”

“Well,” she responded in a huff. “Do you have something else I can call you?”

No, I don’t. And you just lost my business.

Even when someone has been mispronouncing my name for months or years, it is a sweet sound when they finally pronounce it correctly. It may take a lot of pronunciation modeling by me and my “allies” (see below), but the end result is well worth it.

3. Question Anglicized names. I’m sure somewhere, one of my old teachers from The Walker School is saying, “But she introduced herself to us as Kathy, so that must have been what she wanted to be called.” No, it’s just what I finally bowed my head and allowed myself to be called. When you are confronted by a Mutaurawa called “Bobby” or a Dwevish introducing himself as “David”, dig deeper. Engage the student in a conversation that gives him the chance to speak positively about his cultural background. Ask “normal” questions — about parents, siblings, the country of his family’s origin, and so forth — that give him the chance to speak the names of others of his background. Bring the question back around to his name, and let him know that you are strongly in support of using his given name in class if that’s what he wants.

4. Be an ally by helping others get the name right. You can help lighten the yoke of my name by stepping in to help others learn it. When my fiancé (a fifteenth-generation Scottish American) introduced me to his extended family, his uncle Noel was very careful to learn my name; he even asked me to spell it. As I was introduced to other members of the family — some of whom heard my name as “Kathy” or “Katya” — Noel jumped right in with the correction: “No, it’s Khyati. K-H-Y-A-T-I.” At the first staff meeting of last summer’s ‘Anytown’ camp, my co-director turned teaching my name into a game: After each staff member had introduced himself, James jumped up and — waving his arms like an orchestra conductor — said, “Okay, now let’s all practice saying Khyati’s name a few times.”

5. Don’t allow name teasing. You wouldn’t allow their students to refer to Indian or Chinese American classmates using ethnic slurs. Make it clear that teasing people with unique names is just as unacceptable. The lesson that we all have the right to be called what we want is an important one to teach to any age group.

For all of us, childhood is a struggle for positive self-identity. An unusual name only adds to the challenge of adapting, especially when it combines with other attributes — like race, language or religion — that are different from the majority.

For nearly half my life, I was someone else. Khyati wasn’t good enough, wasn’t American enough, was too “weird.” It was not until I had boarded the airplane for a year of post-graduate study in Jerusalem that I decided once and for all I deserve to be called by my name. Still, the reflex dies hard: The first time I introduced myself as Khyati to a fellow American studying abroad, I immediately blurted out, “But if that’s too difficult you can call me Kathy.” But he tried, and practiced, and got it wrong about a dozen times. It was a long trip, and by the time we’d settled in at the Hebrew University, all of my classmates — Americans, Belgians, Spaniards, Germans, Moroccans, Israelis, Palestinians and others — were getting it pretty much right. And not one of them ever asked, “Can I just call you...?”

Educators and parents can help children board that plane a lot earlier, and spare them years of simmering frustration and feelings of inadequacy, by making the effort to ensure that every child is called by the name they want and is shown the respect of proper pronunciation — with a smile, not a scrunched-up nose.


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