I have a game I play when I get my rosters every year. I like to look at my students’ names and mentally sort them into Hogwarts houses based on phonetics alone. Some names are standard … Anthony is always a Gryffindor name. For some reason, Gonzalez is very Slytherin. It brings a little joy to the process of entering names into the paper grade book I stubbornly insist on keeping.
But there’s another name game that a lot of us play at the beginning of the year.
You know the one I’m talking about. The one where we call our friends and say, “You will never believe the name of this kid I teach this year!” Smirkily (is that even a word?), we talk about our Xochitl or our Dantavius in a way that is patronizing and insulting at best.
Back in my parents’ day, there were legends about Oranjello and Lemonjello. Or Rayon, Nylon, and Polly Esther. These days, the most common name-based urban legend (in my limited experience) is L-a, pronounced Ladasha. You know what all these names have in common? They are typically associated with a person of color. And when teachers—overwhelmingly middle-class white women—mock them, it’s racist.
I’m not speaking from a pedestal here. I’ve done the same thing, especially in my first years teaching. And while I’ve never given a student a nickname because I couldn’t pronounce his or her name, I’ve gratefully accepted the shortcuts they’ve offered, rather than working at it until I can correctly pronounce the name their parents gave them.
If anybody had pointed out the latent racism that came with my mockery of my students’ names back then, I know how I’d have responded.
I’d have said, “It’s irresponsible for parents to name their kid Kevante. How is he supposed to get a job?” Because the fact is, I knew what I was talking about. Back then, I worked for a system that required us to call our own subs off a paper list they gave us at the beginning of the semester. (I’ve been a teacher for a LONG time.) If I had a choice between Karen and Kevante, I picked Karen every time for the simple reason that I knew how to pronounce her name. You see, it didn’t occur to me as a 22-year-old teacher that maybe the benefit my kids would get from learning from a person of color for the day might outweigh the momentary awkwardness of mispronouncing a name. I was wrong. If I could do it over, I’d do it differently.
I’ve got a little more experience now, especially when it comes to teaching students of color. When you know better, you do better, and I’d like to believe I’ve improved over the years. I take the time to ask my kids over and over how to pronounce their names, repeating it until they tell me I’m correct. I no longer Anglicize my Hispanic kids’ names, even if I feel stupid saying them in Spanish. Even if I’m the only teacher who says them in Spanish. And I no longer call my friends after I get my roster to recount all the “ridiculous” names in my class.
If we call a kid’s name ridiculous, we are calling his culture ridiculous.
A study of how parents name their children showed that up until the 1970s, black and white parents chose similar names for their children. It was after the Black Power movement that some families began to choose increasingly distinct names, exactly because they were a means to distinguish themselves and show pride in their culture. When we name shame, we’re touting our superiority in the very words we use to identify ourselves. When we make assumptions about someone based on an ethnic name, that’s the very definition of racism.
And it’s true, in our current socio-economic system giving your child an ethnic-sounding name may limit his or her prospects. But if we well-meaning white teachers are worried about Mohammed and Kevante’s job opportunities, then I’d argue that mocking their names when they’re already in the school system is shutting the barn door after the horse is out.
Instead, we should worry about fostering a culture in which a name is not attached to assumptions or stereotypes. We need to find ways to build a society that doesn’t judge people on their presumed race or culture … starting with ourselves. So don’t call anybody to talk about your roster this year. Just sort little Kevante into Ravenclaw and get ready to get to know him this school year.