See Me/Know Me

“If you can’t see past my name, you can’t see me.”

― DaShanne Stokes, noted author, thought leader and sociologist


June is often the month for graduations. A hallmark of these events is the reading of the graduates’ names. A friend, who this year has that responsibility, has been practicing pronouncing names. At her school, each graduate records his/her name so those charged with announcing them can hear the correct pronunciation. Good.

Many of us have names that may be outside of what someone perceives as ordinary, i.e., white, Eurocentric, names. Our names may be common in our country of origin or cultural homeland or names created by parents wanting to celebrate a child’s specialness or names that are just… different.

My name is one of them: Tamara. It doesn’t look all that hard, but the options for how to name tagsay it may be more than you think. TA-Mar-a is correct, not TA-mare-a or Tam-A-Ra or TA-Mere-A. My name is TA-mar-a. From birth through high school, my name was almost always pronounced correctly, maybe with just a one-time correction. That was true even though it wasn’t commonplace. I didn’t meet another person with the same name (or spelling) until I was an adult.

So, why did I become Tammy in college?

Well, I didn’t at first. When fellow students mispronounced my name or tried to give me a nickname, I would correct them. Eventually, however, I thought their fear of mispronouncing my name prevented them from saying hello or engaging with me in any meaningful way; so, for four years, I responded to ‘Tammy.’ Only in hindsight did I recognize that the black students at my primarily white institution had no problem pronouncing my name. In fact, one of my black college classmates laughed out loud when I recently mentioned being called ‘Tammy.’

“Tammy,” he howled. “Where did that come from? You’re definitely not a Tammy.”

“Definitely not a Tammy,” well what did that mean? I guess more often than not, “Tammy” is perceived of as a white girl’s name. So, were the white students being intentionally disrespectful by giving me that nickname? I don’t think so. I think they were trying to be friendly. Upon reflection, however, I wonder if, consciously or unconsciously, they were trying to make me more like them.

If you watch the ABC network show, Blackish, you may recall the episode when the African-American parents struggled over the name DeVonte for their new son. The father wanted this name. The mother said it was too ‘unconventional,’ i.e., too black-sounding. The show proceeded to highlight what research shows: DeVonte will be less likely to get a call back on a job interview than say Chris or Jack or Nick.

Just as Tammy may be a racialized name, DeVonte probably is as well, but why does research show that ‘DeVonte,’ an African-American sounding name, produces thoughts of an entire, full-blown, imagined life story—usually negative—based solely on the name? Does ‘Nick’ bring forth a story on its own? What about ‘Tammy?’

So what is a name?  It’s a label, of sorts, that often provides a shorthand of information.  Almost immediately you believe that Reverend Nick Bright will know a lot about religion. Dr. Nick Bright might be a PhD well steeped in a particular subject matter or an MD skilled in medical diagnosis and treatment. Those titles reveal something about their education/their knowledge, but nothing about them as people. Another layer of assumptions is probably added if the name changes to Reverend/Dr. Jamal Bright. Again, we know something based on the title—and maybe based on his first name—but our ‘knowledge’ doesn’t get close to the critical level of character.

It’s positive that the fictional, upper-middle class, black, Johnson family in that TV show named their infant son DeVonte, knowing he would be assumed to be black and celebrating that. It’s positive that academic institutions are taking the time to learn how to pronounce ‘unconventional’ names as graduates walk across the stage. At the same time, the notion of conventional names is changing. While ‘Barack’ hasn’t made it – yet — to the  U.S. Social Security Administration’s list of the top 1000 American names, i.e, the so-called conventional ones, the name is rising in usage and no one today, except maybe very, very old friends, would ever think of calling Barack Obama by the nickname he once accepted, Barry. And, I can’t imagine a moment now when I would accept being called Tammy.

It seems that slowly, but increasingly, we do not expect names to conform to a dated sense of convention. We’re not there yet, but we do see growing acceptance and celebration of diversity, including in names.  So, today, I ask that you listen carefully when being introduced to someone, respect the person’s name, and try to pronounce that name correctly. And be mindful of any stereotypes that may race through your head based on that name. Clear your mind to fully meet the person.