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Why pronouncing my name right is more than common courtesy

For years, Amira Barger struggled with embracing her name out of fear of others’ perception that Black women are intimidating and difficult. Thanks to her daughter, that changed.
Amira Barger an executive vice president at a global communications firm, providing diversity, equity and inclusion counsel to clients
Amira Barger an executive vice president at a global communications firm, providing diversity, equity and inclusion counsel to clientsCourtesy of Amira Barger.

Lawyer and social commentator Dr. Shola Mos-Shogbamimu was recently celebrated — and criticized — for repeatedly telling journalist Dawn Neesom on-air to pronounce her name correctly.

“This is terrible, especially from a presenter,” Dr. Shola told Neesom. “Go back and start again. Phonetically.”

It’s a reasonable expectation for a host to know the names of their guests. Though it is not an unfamiliar occurrence for Dr. Shola, who encountered a similar occurrence just last year on “Good Morning Britain.”

It’s also a common occurrence for many women, particularly women of historically excluded groups. And as someone who works in diversity, equity and inclusion, it’s important for all of us to realize that pronouncing a name correctly goes far beyond common courtesy.

Yes, workplace encounters generally include some variation of “Hello, my name is ___.” It’s a simple exchange that represents an opportunity to demonstrate respect one to another. These moments can be a significant act of kindness, a signal of value, an act of inclusion - or - at worst, a slight, a missed opportunity, an act of exclusion.

Offering a gracious, “Read it, my darling, read it,” Dr. Shola encouraged Neesom even as the host struggled to pronounce her name multiple times before attempting to shorten it to “Shola.” Unrelenting, Dr. Shola did not allow Neesom to merely move on. “You will say my name.” Watching the exchange, a swell of pride and solidarity washed over me. It’s a situation I know all too well.

Names matter. They beget honor, have meaning, convey history, carry heritage, and hold within them our hopes. My full name is Amira Kalilah Sharifa Barger (Adams). It was given to me with a purpose and is a carefully curated mixture of Arabic and Hebrew chosen by my father - who fell in love with and was versed in both languages. He gifted me these names to affirm Black empowerment, to tie back to the history and beauty of the African continent, and to guard against the inferiority others would attempt to burden me with as a Black woman. Amira means princess. Kalila means darling beloved. And Sharifa means honored.

Having spent much of my childhood on the island of Guam, my upbringing afforded me a place rich in culture surrounded by an array of intricately beautiful names. In fact, I’d never considered my name “difficult” until my family moved back to the mainland United States. The more my name was labeled “exotic,” I struggled with how, or if, I should correct people.

My daughter's name by comparison simple. Or so I thought. She is often mistaken for “Aubrey” instead of “Audrey.” When I overhear it being mispronounced, I tell her each and every time, “That's not your name, tell them what it is.”

I realized, however, I had been encouraging my daughter to do something I had not been practicing. For many years, I, like others, erred on the side of letting it go, not bothering to correct people. Occasionally, I would offer a light-hearted comparison to try and help. “It’s Uh-Meer-uh. Like A-mirror.” I would sit idly by as my name was butchered into “America” or tossed aside in favor of a nickname like “Mimi”. And then, in 2021, my discomfort and uncertainty were put to rest.

At home, too sick to go to school, my daughter, 8 years old, rested nearby as I navigated my workday from home. Around noon, I found a break in between meetings and started to make my way into the kitchen to fix our lunch. Overhearing a work conversation with a colleague, my daughter peeked her head up from the couch and asked, “What did she call you?!”

Amira Barger, and her  daughter, Audrey.
Amira Barger, and her daughter, Audrey.Courtesy of Amira Barger.

“Huh, who?,” I replied, slightly befuddled. “That lady on the phone!”, she explained emphatically. “She kept calling you Am-uh-reeh-ee-aaa, or something. That’s not your name!” At that moment, the proverbial light bulb went off in my head. I pursed my lips, tilted my head, let out a chuckle, and said, “You are absolutely correct.” My daughter, wise beyond her years, and unaware of the gravity of the epiphany I was experiencing, shrugged her shoulders, and quipped, “I’m just sayin’”, and laid back down. To her, the solution was simple, as I had been telling her for years - “That's not your name.”

I no longer let mispronunciations slide. In a recent workshop, I was introduced with a mispronunciation, my solution was to correct it in the moment, I graciously restated my name, then I directed the group to my LinkedIn page where I have since recorded the exact pronunciation of my name. This was a gentle offer of correction that offer a teachable moment for all and a simple solve without alienating people.

What you refuse to address, you endorse. This unintentionally enables a double standard - one in which our names are perpetually viewed as “difficult” or “exotic.” Name discrimination is a real phenomenon with real-world consequences - hiring discrimination, prejudice, racism, bias in higher education, etc. In many instances, those with Black-sounding names feel forced to change them to something “more palatable.” Wary of the judgment of others, I refrained from correcting others to avoid the pervasive perception that Black women are intimidating and difficult - a perception that translates to workplace consequences, signaling our presence as a threat.

Fortunately, there are practical steps we can take to address this issue. When I am unsure of someone's name pronunciation, I simply ask. Then I repeat it to practice and if I’m still unsure, I ask again. I welcome the same from others, and so far people tend to appreciate the care of getting their name right. An online tool that can assist in increasing awareness of proper name pronunciation is I’ve used the website myself and added the phonetic pronunciation of my name to my social pages and email signatures. Noticing the change on my profile, a friend commented these wise words from Warsan Shire: “Give your daughters difficult names. Names that command the full use of the tongue. My name makes you want to tell me the truth. My name does not allow me to trust anyone who cannot pronounce it right.”

For years I struggled with embracing my name for fear of others’ perception. Thanks in large part to my daughter, I no longer carry that burden. Instead, I carry the purpose for which my name was given to me. Our names carry our stories and there is nothing difficult about pausing to honor and recognize the person before you with a correct pronunciation of their name. As my daughter would exclaim, “I’m just sayin’!”