Commentary: The casual racism of mispronouncing an Asian person’s name
The Times recently reported on the outcry following the L.A. theater community’s Ovation Awards, where organizers mispronounced the name of an Asian American nominee and displayed a photo of the wrong actor.
If anyone doubts the racially based sting that comes with such insults to one’s professional endeavors, just read the emails that rolled in to The Times after publication of our article. One reader said the Ovation reaction was just an example of “Asian victimhood.” Another called it a big joke: “I thought you were writing a sketch for SNL with your article yesterday; so ‘much pain and anger’ that wrong photo used and name pronounced incorrectly. Hahahaha — really, audition for SNL, use that article, your [sic] sure to get hired!”
One went the extra mile to make fun of Jully (pronounced like Julie) Lee, who was nominated for her performance in East West Players’ and the Fountain Theatre’s “Hannah and the Dread Gazebo.” Wrote the reader: “How do you say her name? Is it Jelly or Jolly?”
I was so disheartened to read these comments. The Ovation Awards’ snafus — and some of our readers’ reactions to the news coverage of them — are emblematic of the casual racism in the theater world and the world at large.
Ovation Award organizers mistake nominee Jully Lee for a different Asian actor. In protest, the city’s largest theaters pull out of the L.A. Stage Alliance.
Mispronouncing someone’s name, accidentally or on purpose, at the very least demonstrates a selective laziness to learn the correct way to address or acknowledge a person. The name is perceived as particularly difficult only because it’s beyond the white European names that have been deemed normal. (For some reason, an effort can be made for a white person with an unusual name, as Hasan Minhaj explained while on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in 2019. “They’re always like, ‘I’m so sorry, I can’t pronounce it. Meet my son, Higsby Witherthrottle III!’” he said. “If you can pronounce Ansel Elgort, you can pronounce Hasan Minhaj.”)
When done willfully, it’s a conscious decision to weaponize one’s name — a deeply personal signifier of ethnic background and family lineage — against them, othering and invalidating them in a culture that already upholds white supremacy. This was the strategy of former Georgia Sen. David Perdue in referring to Kamala Harris, his Senate colleague and the Democratic nominee for vice president at the time, as “KAH-mah-lah? Kah-MAH'-lah? Kamala-mala-mala. I don’t know — whatever.” (Perdue’s move instead sparked a viral campaign in which people shared the origins of their names on social media.)
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Such encounters sprout name-based microaggressions like “assignment of an unwanted nickname, assumptions and biases about an individual based on their name, and teasing from peers and educators due to cultural aspects of a name,” according to Ranjana Srinivasan, whose research advocates for the mental health of South Asian Americans.
People like my parents hoped to shield me by assigning me an Anglicized given name at birth. Making my name more convenient for others was a defensive move: to lessen the likelihood of being bullied about my race and to up my chances of blending in, belonging and being seen as equal to my peers.
“This is what it is to grow up as a person of color in a white-dominated world,” wrote Kelly Marie Tran in a 2018 New York Times piece in which she reflected on her parents’ adopted American names and included her Vietnamese name: Loan. “I want to live in a world where children of color don’t spend their entire adolescence wishing to be white. … I want to live in a world where people of all races, religions, socioeconomic classes, sexual orientations, gender identities and abilities are seen as what they have always been: human beings.”
The Ovation Awards took place shortly after the documented hesitancy to deem the killings of six Asian women in Atlanta a hate crime instead of a sex addict’s “really bad day.” In the days that followed the attack — one of many acts of violence on people of Asian descent, which have risen significantly during the pandemic — these women’s names were repeatedly misspelled and mispronounced by the media. It all echoes the pervasive invisibility of Asians in America, where your name isn’t worth saying correctly, whether you’re an actor in an Oscar-winning movie or a slain victim of senseless gun violence.
I find it exponentially more disrespectful that this error was made during an event that celebrates the theater, an industry in which artists of color are already pressured to water down their stories, language and entire selves to be palatable for white artistic directors, collaborators and audiences. Amid an unprecedented closure due to COVID-19, so many theater companies have released statements to their patrons, declaring that Black Lives Matter and that violence against Asian American Pacific Islanders is unacceptable. But these boilerplate sentiments say nothing without meaningful action — which, at the very least, calls for pronouncing names correctly and getting photos right.
For the L.A. Stage Alliance to be so careless — especially in the diverse city of Los Angeles — is indefensible. It is yet another example of an awards body that actively diminishes the art form it claims to celebrate.
After the disastrous ceremony, 25 theater companies revoked their memberships from LASA, which announced Monday that it has ceased operations. I look forward to the day when the American theater values the contributions of its artists enough to know their names — all of their names — and it is no longer necessary to explain why people’s names should be pronounced correctly.
The 46-year-old theater association collapses after more than 50 members pull out. Critics say Ovation Awards mistakes reflect long-standing problems.
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