OPINION: Purposefully mispronouncing Kamala Harris’ name is racist, plain and simple



Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks to supporters during a campaign stop at the University of Houston Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

There are two stages in a name for people of color. First, it begins when you change your name to fit the mouths of others. It’s easier to let people pronounce your name the way they want to instead of the immigrant dialect it’s supposed to be said in. It’s easier, simpler and it allows you to shed a bit of your identity to fit in. You may not look like everyone, but simplifying your name will make you stand out less. 

The second stage comes years later. When you’ve grown a little and you understand the power of names, the importance of the culture and heritage you were given. Your name is your identity. It encompasses who you are, so why would you change that to make it easier for someone else? It belongs to you. 

So when Republican Sen. David Perdue mocked Senator and Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris’ name by saying “Ka-MAL-a, Ka-MAL-a or Kamala, Kamala, Ka-mala, -mala, -mala, I don’t know, whatever,” at a rally in Georgia, not only was it disrespectful to a highly qualified colleague, but it also brought up a conversation about how people of color have faced years of microaggressive behavior for simply having names. 

His team later stated that Perdue “simply mispronounced” Harris’s name and it “didn’t mean anything.” Harris and Perdue have served in the Senate for three years together and they serve on the budget committee. It wasn’t a simple mistake when you’ve known a person for multiple years, it was willfully ignorant. 

“The first time someone mispronounces a name, there’s a pass. Maybe they’re unfamiliar with the name or they sincerely can’t pronounce it, that’s one thing. But when someone mispronounces it consistently because they don’t want to bother, it’s highly problematic, demeaning, personal and intolerable,” said DePaul Professor of Political Science Christina Rivers. 

Plainly put, Perdue was racist. 

The mispronunciation of a name is not a minuscule topic that can be brushed off as an honest mistake. Not for people who have been brushed off their entire lives. For people of color, our names prevent us from getting interviews, let alone offers, jobs and promotions. The concept that our names are not “white-sounding” is just another obstacle that places us behind our white counterparts. 

This isn’t the first incident of Harris’s name being mocked. When Harris was announced as Joe Biden’s running mate, Fox News Host Tucker Carlson proceeded to mispronounce Harris’ name multiple times until Democratic political consultant Richard Goodstein corrected Carlson, calling the action “the bare minimum.” 

Carlson responded with “so what?”

“To me, this indicates his disrespect for the Senator who might be the VP of the country. Not only that, but I do think that it’s an indicator that to him, everything including people’s identity must be modified to fit his heritage, the way he speaks. It’s not like her name has a letter or a combination of letters that are difficult to articulate,” said DePaul Islamic Studies professor Ahmed Hashim. 

But the mispronunciation behind Harris’ name goes beyond just a form of racism. It also has to do with her being a female in politics. 

Over the past year, we’ve seen an increase in blatant disrespect and violence towards women in politics and how they have been treated by their male coworkers. From President Trump stating that Sen. Ilhan Omar was an al-Qaeda sympathizer to Rep. Ted Yoho calling Sen. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “f***ing bitch,” to even the plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, women in politics have been criticized for simply existing. 

The focus on Harris’ name is partly because she’s a woman of color in a position of power, and her name makes her an easy target to point out to people that she’s different. She doesn’t fit the mold of what a politician looks like. She’s not white, and she’s not a man.

“Her name is something, repeating it like this. It’s used like a smoke screen, dismissing someone because they are an immigrant. She’s an immigrant, she’s Black, but people can’t go there. They can’t attack her publicly for that. There’s a concept called the neutrality of a name. It’s the intentional concentration on her name that’s coded for the objection to who she is as a woman of color,” Rivers said. 

My name is Duaa. In Islam, it’s the basis for all acts of worship. The action of cupping your hands, closing your eyes and asking God for what you need. It’s calling on a superior being, Allah, for help. Simply put, a dua is a prayer. 

My name gives away I’m a woman of color, writing about politics. My name makes me an easy target for those who would like to use it to deny me a job, attack me for my religion and remind others that I’m different. But, there’s also a chance that my name comes across to people — to women — who look like me. A form of representation in a world filled with men named David and Tucker and Ted. 

In the meantime, if Kamala is too hard for Perdue and Carlson to pronounce, they can start referring to her as Vice President Harris.