(Reposted with permission)
Before Coming to America, before The Arsenio Hall Show, long before Coming 2 America, Arsenio Hall was a sometime panelist on The Match Game-Hollywood Squares Hour, a game show whose one-year run was about a year too long.
As Dave Holmes points out, the only notable thing about the show was that everyone — including the show’s announcer — mispronounced Hall’s name: saying Arseenio (like the long e in Armenia) instead of Arsenio (like the short e in men.)
Hold that thought.
In the 1980s and ’90s, I worked in a manufacturing plant with Ken Quach. Ken literally came to America when his family fled Vietnam after the Vietnam War. To my knowledge, “Ken” wasn’t his original first name. It was just easier for his American sponsors to pronounce.
But “Quach” evidently wasn’t any easier to pronounce. Instead of “qwa,” everyone said “quack,” like a duck.
Maybe Ken didn’t care. Maybe he figured the joke was on us, like people in other countries who secretly laugh at stereotypical American tourists who think everywhere should be like here.
Then I remembered the day Ken came into the break room to get a machine operator. “Joe,” he said, “Line is down. They say to tell you to come.”
“My name isn’t ‘Yo,’ ” Joe said. “It’s Joe.”
“Sorry,” Ken said. “Will you come?”
“Not until you say my name right,” Joe said.
Ken tried. Several times, but not to Joe’s liking. Finally, Joe shook his head and said, “Look, Quack, tell them I’ll be there in a minute.”
The irony was lost on Joe. And I’m ashamed to admit that at the time it was also lost on me.
It wouldn’t have taken us long to learn to say “Qua.” But we didn’t, because it was easier to say “Quack.”
And, sadly, it was also a way to implicitly point out Ken’s “otherness.” We were from around here. He wasn’t. We didn’t need to learn his ways.
He needed to learn ours.
Which was a (crappy) way for us to act.
As Myles Durkee, a University of Michigan professor who specializes in race and identity, says:
Other people can see it as, “Oh, it’s not that big of a deal.” (But) what makes it detrimental is the chronic pattern of consistent mispronunciation. And the ripple effects from that are much more adverse, signaling to the individual that they’re less important, that they’re less valued.
Strategically mispronouncing someone’s name is a way of “othering” someone.
We all — myself definitely included — could have actually walked the diversity and inclusion talk. We could have put in the tiny amount of effort required to pronounce his name properly. We could have treated Ken like one of us — because he definitely was — rather than as someone who would always be slightly different.
When you meet someone new, work hard to pronounce their name correctly. Ask to be corrected. Ask if you’re getting it right. And don’t do anything that implies their name is the problem, since the only problem is your initial inability to pronounce it correctly.
Because your willingness to try, and to care about getting it right, is a first step toward genuine inclusion.
And because treating every person you meet with dignity and respect isn’t just good business.
It’s the right thing to do.