I’m still thinking about the text I received from my best friend Bhakti after the inauguration last week that we, as South Asian American women, had been counting down to.
“Too bad the first Latina Supreme Court Justice mispronounced Kamala’s name,” she wrote with disappointment. “Yeah, I cringed in that moment too,” I responded.
Maybe you didn’t notice. Many people likely didn’t. But I know there were brown folks watching on this continent and the Indian subcontinent who cringed along with me. Vice President Kamala Harris’ name is pronounced “comma-luh,” not “kuh-mah-luh.” But Justice Sonia Sotomayor flubbed it and went with the latter.
You can be a glass ceiling breaker, sworn in by another breaker of glass ceilings, and still hear your name get botched.
We have spent much of the last year listening to the manhandling (and womanhandling) of Harris’ first name, both intentionally and unintentionally.
Taking cues from Donald Trump, who wouldn’t so much speak her name as taunt it, others in his party also refused to get it right. Apparently, some people found “Kamala” impossible to pronounce and they took opportunities to publicly demonstrate that with willfully obtuse and racist rhetoric. Former Republican Sen. David Perdue, then trying to win reelection, disparaged her name like a bully in the schoolyard. “Kuh-mah-luh or comma-luh or kuh-mah-luh, kuh-mah-luh mah-luh mah-luh. I don’t know. Whatever,” he gleefully mocked to uproarious laughter.
Tucker Carlson, host of a show that has been dubbed “The White Power Hour,” was visibly incensed after a guest had the audacity to correct his repeated mispronunciations of “Kamala.” Carlson, a multi-millionaire forever mired in his imagined victimhood, whined, “So I’m disrespecting her by mispronouncing her name unintentionally. So it begins: You’re not allowed to criticize Kuh-mah-luh Harris, or Cam-uh-luh, or whatever.”
Both these white men wanted to “whatever” this moment, an off-the-cuff dismissal to diminish, reduce and otherize then-Sen. Harris. While an initial mispronunciation may be unintentional, such dig-your-heels unwillingness to correct it is purposeful.
Kamala Devi Harris is like many who grew up in this country with non-Judeo-Christian names that were often called “weird” by others. She explained her first name in her autobiography: “First, my name is pronounced ‘comma-la,’ like the punctuation mark. It means ‘lotus flower,’ which is a symbol of significance in Indian culture. A lotus grows underwater, its flower rising above the surface while its roots are planted firmly in the river bottom.”
Kamala is all of us whose names don’t roll off the tongues of white men like Tucker and David and others who use our names as punchlines.
Kamala is my former housemate, who as a boy would anxiously perch on his chair, anticipating the exact moment when the substitute teacher would call his name so he could beat her to it and say, “Heriberto, present,” to avoid what might come. And he recalled the day he missed by mere seconds only to hear the substitute blurt out, “Hairy burrito?” to the howls of his grade school classmates. He could still conjure up the shame years later, even as he was about to embark on a journey at one of the most prestigious graduate schools in the nation.
She is my friend Shekhar, who in high school, instead of comparing his name to punctuation like Kamala, would motion with his hands and say, “Shekhar, like a salt shaker,” as he poured his imaginary salt.
She is my Dad, who says, “Surendra, like surrender,” as he raises his hands in mock capitulation to pantomime the word.
She is me, when someone like a Tucker or David says, “Dipsy? Ditzy? Ditty? Dixie?” as I patiently, gently correct them and say, “Dip-ti, like you dip tea,” and dunk my imaginary tea bag into my imaginary teacup. I hate myself every time I do it, but it reliably results in a flicker of recognition in the eyes of those across from me.
I have always had an especially hard time with monosyllabic white male names. Tim, Tom, Ted, Mike, Matt, Mark, Bill, Bob, Ben, Rich, Rob, Rick, Dick, Dave, Don, Joe, Jim, John, Sam, Steve, Scott, Paul, Pete, Pat. How are we supposed to tell them all apart when there are so many of them everywhere? As soon as someone named Mike introduces himself, I immediately get anxious as they all seem to blur together — it is a constant struggle. But I find my way through and navigate the challenge because calling someone by their name, the way it was meant to be pronounced, is the bare minimum of respect.
People like me and my friends and my family are often asked to spell our unfamiliar names on the phone with the customer service rep of the day. Over the years, I spell it thusly, spitting out each hard consonant as I do: “D as in David, I, P as in Paul, T as in Tom, I.”
David, Paul and Tom. What a rich and savory broth of irony.
Give me an Heriberto, a Shekhar, a Surendra any day. Those are memorable. Those are easy. Give me a Kamala, like my friend, like my niece, like my aunt, like my grandmother. Like my vice president.
My grandmother is named Kamala but in my mother tongue of Gujarati, it’s pronounced “come-la.” I asked my friend Kamla, whose name is pronounced “cam-la,” whether her life will change in any way now that Kamala Harris is vice president. She said, “I look forward to giving my real name instead of ‘Jane’ when I go out again.”
It has been said that the sweetest sound in the world is the sound of your own name. If we can come so far as to elect the nation’s first woman/first Black woman/first woman of South Asian descent as vice president, surely we can dig deep and find a way to pronounce her name correctly. The way she wants it to be pronounced.
Dipti S. Barot is a primary care doctor and freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find her on Twitter at @diptisbarot.