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From Kamala Harris to Kal Penn: How racists mispronounced names as a deliberate tactic

In 'Kamala Harris: Phenomenal Woman', columnist Chidanand Rajghatta outlines the US Vice President's life and legacy.

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All these years later, Kamala is still explaining her name to America. It is a country whose diversity now embraces names from all over the world – except among its most ardent nativists and racists, particularly when it comes to non-white people. If you are white, you could get away with any accent and any name – such as Zbigniew Brzezinski or John Shalikashvili or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not easy if you’re a person of colour. The writer and former NYT columnist Anand Giridharadas once related how a radio host kept mispronouncing his name even after he was corrected. ‘You know, you all have no problem saying Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky,’ Giridharadas complained to the host, who responded by asserting he learnt to pronounce Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky because both were famous.

Giridharadas is concerned a lot of this has to do not with names but with whiteness. ‘There are a lot of complicated names from Polish and Russian and Italian and German backgrounds that have become second nature to Americans,’ he said, arguing that the ‘unusual’ names referred to in the Dear Abby column aren’t unique in their complexity. They just tend to come from places where people aren’t white. In fact, there is ample research on such nomenclatural discrimination. According to a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the easier a name is to pronounce, the more positively it is judged and the better its bearers do economically. Surveys show that job applicants who submit résumés with white-sounding names are more likely to get responses than those with foreign- or Black-sounding ones.


Also Read: Kamala Harris’ journey from ‘Brahmin’ to Blackhood is rarest of the rare


Perhaps anticipating being singled out for her race and ethnicity in a Trumpian world, Kamala has gone to some lengths to explain her name each time she has run for office. In her presidential pre-launch memoir, she explains that her name is pronounced ‘commala’, like the punctuation mark (much to the delight of Bengalis, one might say; South Indians pronounce it Ka-ma-la). ‘A lotus grows underwater, its flower rising above the surface while its roots are planted firmly in the river bottom,’ she writes in The Truths We Hold. Back in 2016, when she was running for the US senate, she posted a campaign video that showed kids explaining how to pronounce her name. ‘It’s not CAM-EL-UH. It’s not KUH-MAHL-UH. It’s not KARMEL-UH,’ the kids say in the video, with each incorrect variation being spelt out and crossed off on screen.

America’s racist, semi-literate hordes picked on every incorrect variation and more – deliberately, in some instances. From conservative TV anchors and rabid radio jocks to right-wing trolls and some of her senate Republican colleagues, maliciously mangling Kamala’s name became a nativist pastime. Among the more gratuitous examples, Fox News demagogue Tucker Carlson, who not only mispronounced Kamala, but when a guest corrected him, cussedly and contemptuously insisted it was not a big deal, forgetting the copulatory rhyme his own name offered.

The senate is hyperbolically called the world’s greatest deliberative body, but has long been a crucible of racism, misogyny and sexism. Kamala is no stranger to Perdue. They have worked together on the senate budget committee since 2017. Barely a month before the Georgia runoffs, the senate on 11 December 2020 passed the bipartisan HBCU Propelling Agency Relationships Towards a New Era of Results for Students (PARTNERS) Act. If signed into law, this legislation is designed to strengthen partnerships between federal agencies and the country’s more than 100 HBCUs, a cause close to Kamala’s heart. The Act was co-sponsored by Doug Jones, David Perdue, Kamala Harris, Roger Wicker, Tim Kaine and Marsha Blackburn. Perdue surely knew how to say her name. Instead, he chose to join the verbal lynch mob, hoping to please an infantile president whose go-to weapon, particularly where it involves strong immigrant women of colour, is derision and scorn. At the same rally, Perdue, a close ally of the US president, suggested Trump was sent by God. ‘This guy is providential. He didn’t happen by accident,’ Perdue said. ‘How in the world in our political system could Donald J. Trump come on the scene in 2016, do what he did? Tell me. God’s watching.’


Also Read: Hinduphobia makes Kamala Harris’ identity a liability. So she is ‘Black’ in US media


Perdue got slammed for his ‘otherizing’ of Kamala and mangling her name. Even his pathetic attempt at a clarification saying he ‘simply mispronounced’ Senator Harris’s name, and that he ‘didn’t mean anything by it’ became the subject of derisive viral video clips and hashtags. It triggered an outpouring of immigrant stories that played right into the Biden–Harris ticket’s ‘America of possibilities’ theme. Ahead of the Georgia runoffs – which, as karma would have it, Perdue lost to Jon Osoff, who is Jewish and less than half his age – Kamala’s niece Meena Harris partnered with former Funny or Die executive producer Brad Jenkins to revive the #MyNameIs campaign, tearing into Perdue. A string of Asian Americans say their (own) names, their jaws set, before a brutal takedown of Trump, playing over goofy visuals of his election loss: ‘Well, Senator, while you simply mispronounced our names, we simply voted Donald Trump out of office. We simply registered millions of voters. We simply turned out in record numbers. But don’t worry, Senator, we don’t mean anything by it.’ There are an estimated 2,38,000 eligible Asian American Pacific Island (AAPI) voters in Georgia.

On Twitter, the #MyNameIs hashtag was used by people of more recent immigrant stock to assert their identity. ‘#MyNameIs Rohit, and my friends call me Ro. It means bright light in Sanskrit. This election, #IWillVote for an inclusive America by voting for @joebiden & @kamalaharris,’ tweeted California Democrat Ro Khanna. ‘#MyNameIs Pramila. It comes from the Sanskrit word ‘premâ’ which means love. The name is constantly mispronounced as is my last name. I only mind that when it is done wilfully and continuously. Let’s build an inclusive America,’ chimed in Pramila Jayapal. Their colleague, California Congressman Ted Lieu tweeted, ‘#MyNameIs Ted W. Lieu. The “W” is short for “Win-Ping” which in Mandarin means Cloud of Peace.’

Writers, actors and sportspersons joined in, among them Amitav Ghosh: ‘My name Amitav means “Infinite Light”. It is one of the names of the Buddha, hence Amida in Japanese, Emituo Fo in Chinese’; Kal Penn: ‘#MyNameIs Kalpen. I started going by Kal Penn to help me get a job & am more than happy to give @SenDavidPerdue some tips on finding a new one of his own’; and Michelle Wing Kwan: ‘#MyNameIs Michelle Wing Kwan & in Chinese pinyin it’s pronounced Guan Ying Shan. It means beautiful, strong and smart. What’s not beautiful, strong or smart is mocking ppl for their “foreign sounding” names. Join me in voting for @JoeBiden @KamalaHarris’.


Also Read: What’s in a name? A lot, if it’s Kamala Harris


If the wilful mispronunciation of Kamala’s name had helped immigrants rediscover the roots and origin of their names, it was a thin cover for a deeper American conservative malaise: the inability or unwillingness among racist-nativist groups to accept the country’s demographic changes, dubbed the ‘browning of America’ in some circles. The outcome of these changes was starting to show up on Capitol Hill itself, where more recently elected lawmakers included Somali American Ilhan Omar, Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib, and Hispanic American Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Dubbed ‘The Squad’, they were progressive Democratic representatives whom Trump and his racist pack unabashedly regarded as foreigners. ‘Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came? Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!’ Trump raged one time during the 2020 campaign.

The racism and bigotry was obvious: these women of colour did not belong to America, they were interlopers. Just in case anyone thought Trump was referring to Democratic, minority-dominated cities such as New York or Detroit when he asked these women to go fix the places they came from, he set it at rest in one of his trademark Twitter tirades: ‘So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.’ All this in the midst of a pandemic that by most accounts he had handled disastrously.

Kamala stayed above the slush and the pig fight that Trump Republicans wanted to drag her into. She called the deliberate mispronouncing of her name ‘childish games’, while explaining in an interview on The Daily Show that as far as she was concerned, a person’s name is ‘precious and sacred’ and is ‘informed by tradition and love’. In stark contrast to Trump’s intentions when he proudly christened his opponents with caricaturized names: ‘Crooked Hillary’, ‘Sleepy Joe’, ‘Mini Mike’, ‘Lyin’ Ted’. For Kamala, he settled on ‘Phony Kamala’.

This excerpt from ‘Kamala Harris: Phenomenal Woman’ by Chidanand Rajghatta has been published with permission from Harper Collins India.

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