When my friends and I were in high school in Nigeria, preparing to go abroad for college, we sat down to brainstorm what names we would use to introduce ourselves to Americans. Even then we knew people would not be able to pronounce our names but what we didn’t know was that these cultural names would become a source of prejudice and discrimination.
While the racist undertones of mispronouncing of names are usually understated, when it is analyzed within the context of historical and present-day racism, African students, like myself, find that they are actually subtle daily insults that support a racial and cultural hierarchy of minority inferiority., Enduring these subtle experiences with racism can have a lasting impact on the self-perceptions and worldviews of students. One of these students is Chinenye Nwume, a Nigerian student at the University of Illinois Chicago.
“I never thought of my name as anything special, but coming here my name became an indicator and reminder of the fact that I’m different,” Nwume said. “I found myself wishing that I had an easy name to pronounce or at least one that would easily have a nickname coined out of it.”
Nwume and several other Africans who migrate to the U.S. are often forced to coin “Americanized” nicknames or change their names entirely. Eventually, a month after she started at college in 2018, Nwume coined a nickname because of the pressure placed by others who couldn’t pronounce her name.
“I had people call me Chichi and I really hated that name. But the crazy thing is that I told people to call me that because I felt it would help me fit in better but it just made me feel even more out of place,” she said.
Nwume said that this contributed to her loneliness since she was not able to make friends for several months in college.
“I ordinarily have a hard time connecting with people, and sometimes I feel my name makes it worse because I have literally felt invisible when people begin to ignore me in a social circle after I introduce myself,” she said. “This isn’t the only effect, but it’s the one that affects me most. I honestly don’t know if this will follow me for the rest of my life, but has followed me long enough for me to believe it will.”
Fegor Imieye, 21, a Nigerian student, changed her name to something she hated because several people kept discriminating against her because of her name.
“I feel very irritated because my name is two syllables and very easy to pronounce but at this point, I am used to it,” Imieye said. “I just started introducing myself as ‘Faye’ instead.”
Ebubechukwu Nwafor, a Nigerian native, shortened her name to “Bubae” which is easier for Americans to pronounce. She too claims that after so many people kept mispronouncing her name for so many years, now she is mostly immune to it. However, her name is still so important to her.
“My name means ‘miracle of God’ and although it’s a common name in Nigeria, it makes me feel special,” she said.
Nwume believes that the way people in America make her and other Africans feel about their names is yet another form of racist micro-aggressions.
“While I feel there are harsher ways of discriminating, this is one of those harmful things that just eat you up slowly and make guys like yourself into believing it’s not a big deal, even though it is,” she said. “This experience is not common to a lot of Americans so a lot of them can’t empathize with us because it is such a specific experience to us.
Nwafor too has experienced microaggressions from several people especially in Georgia Tech where she attends college.
“Professors would save my name for last on roll call, or sometimes not even say it at all, even when it was obvious they skipped me,” she said. “Same goes for asking or answering questions. I would get ignored sometimes.”
Imieye said because her name is African she has experienced blatantly racist assumptions.
“My school sent an email to African international students during winter saying that we should get clothes and coats from a shelter because they think we are all poor,” she said.
Then there are people like Oluwademilade Ayeye who don’t give anyone the chance to mispronounce their names.
“When people mispronounce my name it irritates the living daylight out of me, so I don’t even give anyone that opportunity and I just go by ‘Demi’,” she said.
Before Ayeye came to the U.S. in 2018 to attend NYU, she came prepared to introduce herself to people with her shortened name so that people would not butcher it since her first name—which means “God has crowned me”—is extremely important to her.
“My name is a signifier of all that I am, all that I want to be, and all that I am expected to be. It holds the hopes that my parents held for who I will become but in growing up, it now holds the hope of who I wish to become,” Ayeye said.
When people don’t make an attempt to pronounce her name properly, oftentimes, Ayeye does not educate them because she doesn’t believe it’s her job to open the minds of small-minded people.
“I think it has something to do with how they subconsciously see me as ‘the other’ and more often than not, the other is met with much less empathy,” she said.
Imieye believes that because Americans view Africa and Africans as exotic and far away, they already have a mindset that African names are complicated.
“I feel it is damaging because our names are a huge part of our identity and when the pronunciations are trivialized, it leads to a loss of representation and feelings of isolation,” she said. “Also having to even use short nicknames results in Africans feeling like they have to Westernize themselves to fit in or be more palatable.”
Ayeye believes this is not just harmful but intentionally racist.
“It’s not a harmless mistake to mispronounce African names. It’s ignorant behavior,” she said. “They’ve managed to pronounce Tchaikovsky and other complicated non-African names so why can’t they pronounce ours?”