Updated: Oct 11, 2022
As a child, I would steel myself everytime I walked into a new classroom or saw a substitute teacher instead of my regular teacher. Attendance was a non-issue for my classmates - most would chat amongst themselves or be distracted until they heard their name be called out. Unlike them, I would spend the time mentally tracking the attendance list and calculating how many more names before the substitute teacher would inevitably reach mine. The second I saw the teacher hesitate or take a breath, my arm would impulsively raise, ready to shout out a clear “here!” so that I could avoid the very public and uncomfortable exchange that tends to follow someone trying to pronounce my name for the first time.
The exchange always made me feel awkward. It was a constant reminder that I was an “other” - the Indian girl with the weird, ethnic name. That feeling was reinforced every time someone would ask me what my nickname was, expecting it to be a given that I would have one (or even worse, gave me a whole new name that they deemed to fit), make a face when they heard my name, add an accent to it (the amount of unnecessary rolled R’s I’ve heard over the years…), or, in some cases, decide to share opinions on how hard my name is to pronounce (“why’d your parents name you that?!”).
As a child who immigrated to the US at age seven, I quickly grew to resent my name and often begged my Mom to let me change it. When that didn’t work, I experimented with different nicknames; unfortunately, Prakriti is a hard name to find a short version of. I even came up with an alternative name that sounded nothing like Prakriti, but became my all-American alter-ego. I learned to rush through introductions whenever possible, and made allowances for everyone when it came to them saying my name or pronouncing it correctly.
As I got older and started to learn more about who I was, what I prioritized, and what I wanted my future to look like, I realized the power that my name held. Prakriti wasn’t a name that even I came across often - it was unique, memorable, and a reflection of not only my culture and religion (Prakriti is the prime material energy of which all matter is composed, commonly known as nature, in Sanskrit), but of my very identity. Even more importantly, it was the name my parents chose for me and it was one of the last pieces I had left of my father after his death.
This realization was the start of not only my journey in reclaiming the power that came with my name and my identity, but also of my interest in the world of IO and Diversity & Inclusion. As a Senior Behavioral Scientist at BetterUp, I now consult with companies and help them foster a culture of belonging and inclusion within their workforce through the lens of organizational psychology and behavioral science.
Avoiding Ethnic Names is a Microaggression
It’s hard to feel welcome in a space where your name is constantly mispronounced, not used in order to avoid awkward moments, or used interchangeably with another person of color’s name. Microaggressions are defined as verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group (Sue et al., 2017). Microaggressions have the potential to affect everyone - by reflecting on our behaviors, we can become aware of the biases we hold and avoid engaging in microaggressions. Creating an inclusive environment is a continuous process of learning, evolving, and growing, and embracing the importance of intentional communication is a key component of the process.
Advocacy is Critical
If you are someone with an ethnic or uncommon name, I encourage you to fight the urge to let people skip over your name or assign you an arbitrary nickname. Correcting folks about your name and how to pronounce it is a form of self-advocacy. I’ve empowered myself to correct folks when they mispronounce my name - the slight moment of discomfort is worth the preservation of my identity. Speaking up, especially in rooms with other people in them, also may help you be an advocate for other individuals who are going through this struggle so they can model your advocacy behaviors.
Tips for Being Inclusive
If you are someone who doesn’t face this particular struggle yourself, you can still make a difference and move the needle towards fostering an inclusive workplace by:
Taking the time to be proactive about pronunciation - it means a lot to folks who have encountered judgements about their name. Ask people how they want to be addressed and how their names are pronounced
Letting the other person know that you want to make sure you address them correctly (e.g. "I really want to make sure I say your name correctly, can you teach me?")
Repeating their name after they introduce themselves to confirm that you are pronouncing it correctly
Being an ally - if you hear someone mispronouncing a colleague's name, shoot them a quick reminder to correct them
Prakriti is a Senior Behavioral Scientist and Senior Consultant on the People Insights team at BetterUp, where she uses her knowledge and expertise in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Behavioral Science to help people live with greater clarity and purpose, with a special focus on BetterUp’s federal partners. Prakriti received her Master’s in IO from University at Albany - SUNY.