Welcome to Race on Campus. Pronouncing a student’s name correctly is the first of many steps in creating an inclusive classroom. Getting a student’s name wrong, or not attempting to pronounce it correctly, can be a microaggression. Here’s a primer on saying names right the first time.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write to me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

A way to convey respect.

At Prince George’s Community College, in Maryland, there are two distinct looks that students often give when they cross the graduation stage.

Some will stop and look back, disappointed if their names weren’t said correctly. When the speaker gets their names right, it’s the opposite. A student’s face will light up with an expression that says, “That’s me.”

Clover M. Baker-Brown has seen both of these expressions and strives for the latter. Baker-Brown, a professor of communication, teaches courses on public speaking, public relations, and intercultural and interpersonal communication. Inside and outside the classroom, she makes a point to correctly pronounce all students’ names.

People’s names are tied to their cultural identity. Learning how to pronounce someone’s name is the first of many steps that one can take to convey respect. It also makes students feel more comfortable and fosters a more inclusive learning environment, Baker-Brown said.

When a detail becomes a microaggression.

Through grammar school and high school, I can’t remember a teacher who pronounced my name correctly when first calling roll. For teachers in southern Louisiana, where I grew up, “Fernanda,” a common name in Romance languages like Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, was difficult enough. My last name, “Zamudio-Suarez” — two common Mexican surnames — was out of this world. Plenty didn’t even try. I was often the only Latina student, or one of two, in my class. When teachers didn’t get my name right, it conveyed what I already knew: You’re not like everyone else.

In 2012, Rita Kohli, an associate professor of education at the University of California at Riverside, wrote a paper arguing that improperly pronouncing a student’s name in a K-12 classroom is a microaggression, and that this daily aggression could have a lasting effect on students.

“There’s a lot of historical practice with this idea that names need to be palatable,” Kohli told The Chronicle in a phone interview.

From the 17th to 19th centuries, enslaved people in the United States had their given names changed to the names of their masters. Indigenous people were also often forced to rename themselves with Christian or Anglo names.

Similar practices are still present today; students of varying cultural backgrounds are asked to use nicknames or to shorten their names because instructors are unfamiliar and uncomfortable pronouncing their given names.

Kohli and her co-author conducted reflective interviews with 41 adults who had their names changed or dealt with a mispronunciation in a classroom. They found that those who changed their names or felt the pressure to change them experienced feelings of shame.

Though a mispronunciation or the pressure to change a name may seem like a minor detail, these mistakes add up and amount to a microaggression, Kohli said.

The onus is on the professor.

Baker-Brown said she’s always been interested in names. Regardless of whether she’s in or out of the classroom, she often asks people about the origins of their names.

In the classroom, students want their names to be articulated. When Baker-Brown gets her class roster at the start of the semester, she memorizes every name and practices how to say it. By the time students get to her class, she’s ready to call the roll.

This is no small detail, and it can affect a student’s opinion of her for the rest of the semester, she said. For example, many international students come from cultures where college professors are highly respected. If an instructor mispronounces a name or obviously doesn’t try to pronounce it properly, some students may question whether their professor is qualified for the job, especially at the start of the semester when students are forming their perceptions about a professor’s competence.

The onus is on a professor to correctly pronounce a student’s name, Baker-Brown said. Instructors have a professional responsibility to make a valiant attempt.

Students are better participants when they feel like they belong in a classroom. Pronouncing a name correctly is a way to encourage that feeling, she said. It’s a part of the work in culturally responsive teaching — an educational philosophy that prompts teachers to understand students’ cultures to better identify nuances that help students learn or prevent them from learning.

Baker-Brown teaches this to students in her classes, too. For example, in her public-relations classes, she tells students it’s important for them to speak clearly so everyone can understand what they are saying, including names.

Emphasize your syllables.

How can instructors better prepare to pronounce students names?

Before you start sounding things out, keep cultural context in mind, Kohli said. A so-called difficult name for one person may be culturally common or easy for another person to say, she said.

When the pandemic moved classes online, Kohli said, platforms like Zoom helped the name-pronunciation process. On Zoom, users can change the way their name is displayed and include a phonetic spelling, making it simpler for everyone to get names right.

If the class is in person, Kohli says modeling behavior after the Zoom interface and asking students how their names are pronounced and how they’d like to be addressed.

For in-person classes, look at your roster ahead of time, Baker-Brown said. If you see a name you don’t recognize, break up the syllables and sound it out.

Then, practice. Repeat it until you get it right, and saying the name becomes second nature.

Read more about getting pronunciations right:

Read up.

  • George Mason Universityinstalled a new memorialthat recognizes the more than 100 people enslaved by George Mason IV, the politician after whom the university is named. (The Washington Post)
  • Last week Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court — the first Black woman to serve as a justice. For many Black women at her alma mater, Harvard Law School, the moment felt personal. (The New York Times)
  • Lincoln College, a predominantly Black institution in Illinois, will shut its doors in May. The college said pandemic financial challenges and a recent cyberattack put the college over the financial edge. (The Chronicle)

—Fernanda