Is Mispronouncing A Name A “Microaggression”?

I have been a long critic of the erosion of free speech on college campuses and the use of the ill-defined concept of “micro aggressions” to sanction students and faculty alike. Now there is a national campaign by the National Association for Bilingual Education and the Santa Clara County Office of Education that indicates that a teacher who mispronounces a student’s name is causing an offense to the student’s identity. negative emotional state that can lead to poor academic success.

The campaign, titled “My Name, My Identity” says on its website, “Did you know that mispronouncing a student’s name negates the identity of the student? This can lead to anxiety and resentment which, in turn, can hinder academic progress.” The author of an influential report on the issue, Rita Kohli, an assistant professor of education at the University of California at Riverside, maintains that such mistakes can be deemed a “microaggression.” That is chilling for some of us who are notoriously bad at pronouncing names.


Kohli coauthored a report with Daniel Solorzano entitled “Teachers, Please Learn Our Names!: Racial Microagressions and the K-12 Classrooms. The report stressed “[w]hen the child enters school and teachers – consciously or not – mispronounce, disregard or change the name, they are in a sense disregarding the family and culture of the students as well.”

I can see how mispronouncing names can be stressful but it is part of life for many people. One has to have some understanding that most people do not mean anything hostile or intentional in such mistakes. Yet, Kohli insists that teachers who mispronounce a student’s name because they are incapable “to center cultures outside of their own.”

This point was driven home by education blogger Jennifer Gonzalez:

Name mispronunciation – especially the kind committed by the arrogant manglers—actually falls into a larger category of behaviors called microaggressions, defined by researchers at Columbia University’s Teachers College as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” (Sue et al., 2007).

In other words, mutilating someone’s name is a tiny act of bigotry. Whether you intend to or not, what you’re communicating is this: Your name is different. Foreign. Weird. It’s not worth my time to get it right. Although most of your students may not know the word microaggression, they’re probably familiar with that vague feeling of marginalization, the message that everyone else is “normal,” and they are not.

She stresses that you should not take it personally to be called a microaggressor or bigot:

“And before you get all defensive about the bigotry thing, let’s be clear: Discovering that something you do might be construed as bigotry doesn’t mean anyone is calling you a bigot. It’s just an opportunity to grow.”

The campaign seeks to have teachers sign a pledge to “show respect to others’ names and identities in schools by pronouncing students’ names correctly” and “share my name story on social media” as well as other pledges.  I have never met an educator who did not want to pronounce the names of students correctly, so I hardly think that the pledge to do so is problematic . . . or necessary.  What concerns me is the ongoing effort to create a new basis for sanctions or compelled “cultural appreciation” or “cultural sensitivity courses” for “microaggressions.”

A category for ““brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” is chilling.  An unintentional “negative” comment is a standard conveys that it turns on how it is received rather than intended.  We have seen where an ever-widening range of speech on campuses — particularly conservative speech — is deemed as offensive or harmful to some listeners.  Recently we saw professors and students actually support a professor who criminally assaulted pro-life advocates with some calling such advocates “terrorists” for their views.

We have seen students rise in protest over what they believe is “cultural appropriation” in schools offering yoga or students wearing dreadlocks or serving Mexican food. Recently students at Oberlin even fought to stop the school from offering students sushi as “cultural appropriation.”  We are losing the important lesson that in a pluralistic society you need to be prepared to hear opposing views and overcome slights that come your way. Ideally you develop an appreciation that some insults are not intended and to develop a thicker skin in dealing with people from different cultures or perspectives. Instead, we seem to be plunging our educational institutions into the dangerous waters of speech regulation and sanctions.

Putting aside the immediate debate over mispronounced names, we have never had a real debate over the meaning or necessity of microaggression codes in this country.  However, advocates of the expanding range of speech regulation are succeeding in establishing these ambiguous standards on our campuses despite the threat to free speech and academic freedom.

88 thoughts on “Is Mispronouncing A Name A “Microaggression”?

  1. The “cultural misappropriation” of foods is the part I can’t wrap my head around! I always thought sharing and learning about each others’ food was a primary part of learning other cultures. Are we not supposed to do that anymore, but pull back into the corners our grandparents came from? Frankly that sounds grossly “anti-immigrant”!

    Does this mean I can’t eat pizza anymore, lest I be dissing Italians? Or, no more baguettes from the Artisan bakeries? Or, no more wine from anywhere??? (not that I drink, but…)

    Or is it just that the schools can’t serve pizza for lunch anymore, but when you’re at home with your family or out to dinner, pizza is OK because the government isn’t paying for it (like at the elementary cafeteria or college dorm eating plan)

      • Amen! Go Franzia White Zindfandel in the box! Most popular wine in the world!

        Squeeky Fromm
        Girl Reporter

        (PS: You can re-purpose the wine bag from the Franzia Wine Box as a survivalist water storage bag. You have to clean it first. Or maybe you could just leave a little wine in it? I wonder if the alcohol would sterilize the water? It’s probably somewhere on the Net still.)

      • but, but… there are grapes and there are wine-grapes. The Native Americans were not wine-bibbing when the Dutch (or the Spanish, or the English, or the Portuguese) arrived. I’m pretty sure the last couple of decades’ prize-winning wines, wherever they’re growing in the US, are made from Vitis vinifera, originally from the Mediterranean and Central Asia.

        Well, there are a lot more Vitii around the US and the world than I knew about before my DH just read me the Wiki page, but I’ll stick with the proposal that the prize-winning wines of today do not come from American table grape or grape-juice grape varieties, but from Old World ones.

        • chimene – you are forgetting about the Vikings who landed in Vinland.😉 Agreed, the vineyards of today are using the grapes from Italy. And winning prizes with them.

  2. Just to interject here on the water vs wine thang. One of the most famous churches, the Stiftskirche, in my hometown of Stuttgart, Germany actually used wine rather than water in their mortar during the construction as the latter was more precious .

  3. Cool. Let’s have our kids enroll with names like this to challenge this ideological system:

    1. Benjani Mwaruwari
    2. Abdeslam Ouaddou
    3. Kåre Ingebrigtsen
    4. Imants Bleidelis
    5. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov
    6. Alfons Groenendijk
    7. Reijo Ruotsalainen

    So either kindergarten teachers will be required to complete a 4 year course in the pronunciation of Finnish, Russian, Latvian, Hungarian (which is supposed to be quite hard to learn), Mandarin, Japanese, Austrian, Gaelic – Irish and Scottish, and all the tribes of Africa, or they will quit this absurd self-caging Fascism.

  4. chimene: Does this mean that African American women must no longer straighten their hair? That they will only be permitted to eat baked crickets and other dishes native to their ancestors? We’ll all have to go on ancestry.com and find out what restaurants we may eat at without offending anyone.

    Squeaky – no, the residual alcohol is not sufficient to sterilize water kept in the bag. Water can only be stored a short time before it starts to grow amoebas and creepy crawlies. Invest in a good filter, and some sterilization tablets.

    And learn how to brew beer. You can literally brew perfectly safe, drinkable beer from water from a duck pond. Watched them do it on TV. The fermentation process itself destroys the bacteria, but pouring beer over something would not have enough alcohol to sterilize it. High proof would though. That’s why beer drinking saved (some of) the population of Europe when they would dig latrines next to their well and then all get cholera, etc. Clean water was just not to be had. So even kids drank beer. Sure, their livers must have been shot and they didn’t live past 40, but they wouldn’t have gotten that far without it.

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