POLITICS

Parents Of Color Speak Out After Sen. Kamala Harris’ Name Is Mocked

“If white people can say 'Phoebe' or 'Arnold Schwarzenegger,' they could definitely say a Nadia, Roberto or a Zakir. It’s not brain surgery, it’s laziness."

After Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia butchered and mocked Sen. Kamala Harris’ name at one of President Donald Trump’s campaign rallies last week, people of color recoiled in unpleasant familiarity.  

“Ka-MA-la, KA-ma-la, Kamala-mala-mala. I don’t know, whatever,” Perdue said of the Democratic vice presidential nominee at Friday evening’s rally in Macon, Georgia, drawing laughs from the crowd.

Democrats, including Harris’ spokesperson, responded to Perdue’s remarks as “incredibly racist,” noting that Perdue had worked with Harris for more than three years in the Senate. Perdue’s spokesperson John Burke tweeted that the senator “simply mispronounced” Harris’ name and “didn’t mean anything by it.”

The incident sparked an online movement, which included Democratic lawmakers and celebrities, sharing the origins and meaning behind their names with the #MyNameIs hashtag. 

For parents, in particular, many shared the tug of war they experienced when it came to naming their children ― on the one hand, wanting to honor their racial and ethnic background and, on the other, facing the worry that their children would be mocked like Harris if their names were deemed difficult to pronounce, even in the slightest way.

“Monolingualism, in general in the United States, is taken as a given, and anything that’s outside of that is deemed ‘ethnic.’ This really shows how myopic this awareness is in the U.S.,” said Mariam Durrani, an assistant professor of anthropology at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. 

Durrani, who gave birth to her daughter in 2009, said she was aware of how her Muslim daughter with Pakistani roots would be perceived in the U.S., so it was important for her to find a name that was both meaningful and easy to pronounce. She settled on Nadine Noor, a harmonious alliteration that translates to hope and light, respectively. 

HuffPost spoke to several Americans about their journeys with their own names and how it influenced how they named their children. Some spoke about the importance of upholding traditions. Others talked about the weight of their names and its ties to slavery or how likely someone was to be profiled at an airport or overlooked for a job. Nearly everyone recalled a moment when they faced their own Perdue, when they were dismissed or taunted because of their names.

These interviews were condensed and edited for clarity.

Dieu Tran, 35, Washington, D.C., Consultant 

Daughter: Lê Valkyrie, 2

When Tran was picking out names for her baby, she would write down options on a sheet of paper and pass it to her husband, a white American, to pronounce. It was her way of gauging how her child’s name would be said by non-Vietnamese people.

“It was really important to me that the baby would have a Vietnamese name. But I understand that Vietnamese is such a tonal language, like the inflection up and down, and it would be really difficult for a Western tongue to pronounce,” Tran told HuffPost.

Accents are used to denote six distinctive tones in the Vietnamese language, which often gets lost when written in English ― like Tran’s name, which she has since adapted without the accents. Still, Tran wanted to make sure her child represented her Vietnamese side in some way. The parents settled on a Vietnamese first name, Lê, (pronounced LAY) and a Nordic middle name, Valkyrie.

Naming your child “is very personal and very powerful because it is who you are. And I had my share of horrible names stories too after moving here,” she said, adding that she felt triggered by Perdue’s mocking of Harris’ name and doesn’t believe that he just misspoke.

Dieu Tran with her husband and 2 year-old daughter, Lé Valkyrie.
Dieu Tran with her husband and 2 year-old daughter, Lé Valkyrie.

Smita Nadia Hussain, 36, New Jersey, Campaign Director

Sons: Zakir, 5, And Emiliano, 7 Months

Two parents, a Bengali American mother and a Salvadoran American father, knew they both liked classical, traditional names. They wanted to make sure that their sons, ages 5 and 7 months, represented the cultural hybrid found in their families and that it was easy for the Bengali-, Spanish- and English-speaking members of the families. 

Smita Nadia Hussain, a Bengali American, with her Salvadoran American husband and their two children.
Smita Nadia Hussain, a Bengali American, with her Salvadoran American husband and their two children.

Zakir was named after Hussain’s father, a tradition common in Latino culture. Hussain’s husband has such a name himself. Emiliano was named after the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

“If white people can say ‘Phoebe’ or ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger,’ they could definitely say a Nadia, Roberto or a Zakir. It’s not brain surgery, it’s laziness,” said Hussain. It’s just automatic dismissal that you are not normal or you are not accepted and, and it’s so internalized and I feel like some of our communities have internalized that too.”

Denny Vrandečić, 42, California, Technology 

Daughter: Leyla, 6

Neither Vrandečić nor his wife uses their real name. It wasn’t much of a choice. Vrandečić, who is Croatian and was born and raised in Germany, was born Zdenko, and his wife, who is from Uzbekistan and goes by Kamara, was born Qamarniso. After they moved to the U.S., they found it nearly impossible to navigate their lives with real names. So their nicknames stuck.

When they had their daughter in 2014, they didn’t want her to go through what they went through and were forced to adopt a nickname.

“Who knows where Leyla will be [when she grows up]. We didn’t want a name that only works in the U.S., that only works in Germany or that only works in Uzbekistan. We wanted something that would work in all of those cultures and is pronounced the same in all those different languages,” said Vrandečić. 

Umaima Jafri, 37, Ohio, Mom

Daughters: Hafsah, 13, And Sumayyah, 9

Sons: Sauleh, 11, And Shuayb, 7

Umaima Jafri remembers when her husband wrote about 50 names on the whiteboard in the delivery room and asked each nurse to vote on the names. Jafri vehemently was against it. She didn’t have the easiest name herself, and she was often taunted by other children calling her “yo mama.”

Jafri wanted to make sure her children had meaningful names that stemmed from the Islamic faith, even if it meant working with letters that didn’t exist in the English language. She said her sons had more trouble than her daughters, with most struggling to pronounce the h in Sauleh and the vowels in Shuayb (pronounced shoe-abe.)

Umaima Jafri, a 37-year-old mother, with her four children.
Umaima Jafri, a 37-year-old mother, with her four children.

“It’s a tug of war that you have internally with yourself, like, should I just shorten it for somebody and make it easy on them, or should I actually teach everybody consciously, every single person you meet?” Jafri said. She said she still feels guilty that she sometimes gives a different name when she goes to Starbucks.

Still, she hopes she’s able to instill the confidence in her children ― and in herself ― to be proud of their names wherever they go.

Manoucheka Williams, 42, Texas, Mom

Sons: Jaylen, 15, Kevin, 14, Jonathan, 11, And Cameron, 7

Manoucheka Williams never forgot the pauses teachers took before attempting to pronounce her name. It was a silence that causes her anxiety until this day. She remembers classmates turning around and staring at her. It was a routine that happened at the beginning of each school year.

“My name has always been one of anxiety for me. It was like I couldn’t sleep the night before the first day of school because I dreaded the teachers having to call my name,” Williams told HuffPost.

After she graduated from high school and from Florida State with a degree in mechanical engineering, the problem didn’t stop. A recruiter once told her that they skipped her résumé the first time around because the individual couldn’t figure out how to pronounce her name correctly.

“I always loved my name, but I just always felt like people used it to devalue me because some people wouldn’t even attempt it or if they said it wrong and I would correct them they wouldn’t even respond or try to make a correction,” she said.

Manoucheka Williams and her husband and sons.
Manoucheka Williams and her husband and sons.

As a young Black woman in engineering surrounded by older white men, she was constantly asked if she had a nickname or an abbreviation they could use instead.

“I wanted my kids to have normal American names. No crazy spellings. I wanted people to be able to see their name and, number one, not form any judgments or any stereotypes about them,” she said. 

“We are going to be adding little Black boys who will grow up to be Black men in this country that we are living in, and we were never blind to the plight of the Black man in this country. So I felt like giving them a name that removes any kind of stigma was already giving them a step up,” she added.

Shireen Soliman, 50, New York, Educator And Artist

Daughter: Daleelah, 19

Son: Yaseen, 17

Despite the fact that Shireen Soliman gave careful thought to spelling her daughter’s name with two ee’s, people still pronounce it “Delilah.” But that’s not her name. Daleelah, which emphasizes the long “e” sound, translates to a guide in Arabic and that’s what she wanted her daughter to grow up to be: a leader and a guide. 

A New York-based educator who meets and teaches a wide range of people, she always makes it a point to call students by their names the right way. She’s frustrated when others don’t give her or her kids the same courtesy.  

Shireen Soliman, a New York educator, with her two children.
Shireen Soliman, a New York educator, with her two children.

“It’s like they’re adapting your name to what makes them more comfortable. So it’s a little bit of this small way that you move in the world is kind of an act of revolt or revolution or resistance to say, ‘No, this is my name.’” Soliman told HuffPost.

“It’s that colonial mindset or that imperialist mindset that says, ’You will adapt to my superior culture, my superior name, my superior language. You will be the one to adapt, rather than a mutual honor and respect,” she added.

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, 37, Pennsylvania, Author

Sons: Issa, 11, And Adam, 6

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow remembers when she was a grade-school teacher and some students mocked other students’ names or teachers forced nicknames onto students whose names they couldn’t pronounce. 

“A child’s name is sacred in some ways. It’s precious to them, and it’s important for them, and so we should value them and make an effort as educators to say their names to learn them and to honor them,” Thompkins-Bigelow said.

As a Black American, Thompkins-Bigelow recognizes that for many people, including members of her own family who were descendants of enslaved people, they were stripped of their names.

Which is why she published “Your Name Is a Song,” a children’s book dedicated to honoring African American names, Latino names, Middle Eastern names and other cultural names from people of color.

“When we diminish aspects of people’s culture or people’s identity, then we’re diminishing them,” said Thompkins-Bigelow. “We think those kinds of things are small, but they end up adding up and becoming huge things.

Yasmine Badaoui, 27, Michigan, Writer And Poet

Sons: Hasan Wolfgang, 6, And Mehdi Aristotle, 4 

A few things stuck out during Yasmine Badaoui’s pregnancy. Like when she was pregnant with her first child and realized that her baby moved the most when they listened to Mozart. For her second child, she realized that she enjoyed reading a lot of philosophy, both Arab and non-Arab philosophers.

“I always knew my children would have Arabic names so they’ll always know where they come from regardless of people if they’re able to pronounce them or not,” Badaoui said.

Yasmine Badaoui and her two sons, Hasan Wolfgang and Mehdi Aristotle.
Yasmine Badaoui and her two sons, Hasan Wolfgang and Mehdi Aristotle.

Incorporating two of those themes, Badaoui named her first son Hasan Wolfgang and her second son Mehdi Aristotle. She says it couldn’t be more perfect.

Her sons have already come home and asked her why people don’t say their names the way she does, and Badaoui has tried to explain to them that even when people don’t get it right, their name is their own.

“Right now, they don’t see themselves as ‘other.’ It’s just unfortunate, and when they grow older, other people are going to make them feel like they’re not a part of this country. But they’re going to have the tools to be able to tell them otherwise,” she said.

Deanna Othman, 38, Illinois, Freelance Journalist And Teacher

Daughters: Sumaya, 16, And Asmaa, 15

Sons: Yousuf, 10, And Hamza, 4

When Deanna Othman was pregnant, she knew that no matter what she named her kids, people were going to give them a hard time as Palestinian Muslim Americans. It’s why she decided right away that she was going to name them whatever she wanted.

“I believe that regardless of how easy it is for people to pronounce a name, if they see it as foreign, they still will not even make an effort to pronounce it,” Othman told HuffPost. She said her name is a case in point. Despite how it’s spelled, people still call her Diana or Dina. 

Still, she said she was upset when she heard Harris’ name ridiculed without any consequence. Especially when a person’s name, with all its characteristics and challenges, with it being a source of inspiration and pride, is callously brushed off as a joke on a national platform.  

 Deanna Othman and her family during Eid in 2019.
Deanna Othman and her family during Eid in 2019.

Yasmine Ederer, 34, North Carolina, Mom And Student

Sons: Majeed, 14, Rasheed, 11, And Justice, 5

There wasn’t too much Yasmine Ederer wanted in her children’s names. She wanted them to be influenced by the Islamic faith and she wanted them to be easy to say. 

Ederer and her four siblings have rhyming names, and she started off doing the same with her first two sons. But when pregnant with her third son, she couldn’t find a rhyming name that she liked, let alone one in Arabic that would be easy for those who didn’t speak the language.

Then it dawned on her that a Muslim-influenced name didn’t have to be in Arabic. After all, “justice” was a concept emphasized in the Islamic faith and understandable to English speakers as well.

“Everybody can easily understand what it is and how it’s spelled and what it means,” she said, making it all the more fitting for an American Muslim son. Still, she says some Arab Muslims try to translate his name into Arabic while non-Muslims expect her to have given a ‘foreign’ name to her sons.

“I could almost see it in their face. They’re expecting to hear a name like Muhammad or Ahmed or some Arabic-sounding name,” she said. At the end of the day, she said, all of the names fit the goals she set out for herself: easy, meaningful and perfect for her American Muslim family.