Cultural Competency 101: Honoring My Name, Your Name, and Our Students’ Names

Each year, I’m excited to learn my students’ names. After receiving my class roster, I practice each one over and over again, committing to pronouncing each name the way their families intended for them to be said. When I meet my students, I plead that they correct me if I say their name wrong. At first, my students think I’m being ridiculous– for some, their names have always been mispronounced at school. After a short time, however, they get on board and correct me and each other when a name is mispronounced. My dedication to correctly pronouncing my students’ names is partly due to my experiences with my own name.

My first name is Kirsti, as in Kear-stie. My name has six letters, two syllables, and was easy to learn how to spell (this bothered me as a child; I really wanted a name with at least three syllables). To my surprise, however, my name— with its two syllables, and six letters—was not easy for other people to say.

Kristy

Curstie

Krisky

Kirsten

and so on,

became replacements for the thoughtful choice my mom made when choosing a name for me. While some accidentally mispronounced my name (that’s fair), there were many who simply refused to say it correctly.

“It’s too hard,” was a repeated excuse.

“Your name is actually Kur-stie; why would your mother name you Kirsti,” my British Art History professor told me (I mark his nationality here, because in the UK, Kirsti is a common name, but is often pronounced Kur-stie).

“Can I just call you something else?” a few have had the audacity to suggest.

As a child, people’s difficulty with my name felt like a continuous rejection of a part of my identity, creating the desire to rename myself. To make introductions and role-calls more pleasant, I wanted a name everyone could say, and would say—like Mariah. In elementary school, with the 90s as its backdrop, Mariah seemed like a doable name. With changing my name, I may have lost part of my identity, but at least I was choosing what others would call me. I could have been 3-syllable Ma-ri-ah.

Fortunately, as I got older, I learned to appreciate my name. I appreciated the story that goes with it—my mother looking at our family tree in the hospital (I was supposed to be a Jacob). Me, lying there mysterious, and nameless for a bit. My nana ‘encouraging’ my mom to name me after a Finnish relative. My mother choosing Kirsti, deciding to take the accent mark off of the final ‘i’, because she thought it would be easier for people to say. Kear-stee, rather than Kear-ste.

It’s a nice, cuddly kinda’ story that gets misplaced when people call me Kristy, or Kirsten. It’s a story of my family trying mark my Finnish identity, when many wouldn’t know, by looking at me, that I come from a strong Finnish lineage. But it’s a story that lost its identity when my professor told me I was wrongly named. And my name loses its story each time someone refuses to say my name as it’s intended to be said- Kear-stee.

I keep such personal experiences close to my heart each year, as I learn the names of my scholars.

1. Maria (Muh-dee-a)

2. Ismael (Eas-MY-El)

3. Dei’Ajhanae (Dee-aw-ju-nay)

4. Xochitl (so-chee/l)

5. Angeles (On-hu-les)

6. Damonie (Day-mon-ee)

7. Isileli (Ee-si-le-ly

While learning each student’s name, I try to honor that each students’ name holds a story of why they were gifted this identity-marker. When I don’t know how to say a name, I ask colleagues for support. And on the first day of class, I do what I want my students to always do; I try my best.

While Don Draper reminds us in Mad Men, that people often change their name, and have the right to make such decisions for themselves, we don’t have the right to change someone else’s name. When we take part in the practice of re-naming people, we are partaking in unwarranted power that creates distance between ourselves and the person we’re renaming. If we care about fostering meaningful relationships with each other, and especially with students, then we must not only learn to say names correctly, but we must also honor each story that precedes it.

Some people may say that names are just names- that I shouldn’t make a big deal over them, but I always will. Names are the first gifts we receive from our family—some who are alive, some who have passed away. We’re named after relatives, our family’s heroes, and sometimes, our names are created by our parents. Names begin to tell our stories, our backgrounds, and our identities. They’re afforded to individuals, regardless of economic and racial backgrounds, and we should all be afforded the right to have our names respectfully pronounced with the most possible precision.

For a more comedic approach on how ridiculous it to rename folks, check out this Key and Peele sketch that I first saw on the Deconstructing Myths blog. I recently watched it again, and new I had to share.

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