Names are a big deal. There’s an idea in roughly all magic that if you know someone or something’s true name you have a form of power over it. Evidently, that will never be a problem for me. And I find that odd, because my name — at least my first name — has existed for thousands of years and appears in classical Greek texts. My name is so old that there is some speculation it is a non-Greek loan word from the Minoan dialect. Y’all had a full three millennia to figure it out and you haven’t.
Well done guys. Well done.
I can sort of forgive people misspelling my last name. Unless they speak German. Then it’s just weird. But for one I’m not wholly convinced that my family were originally named “Schulz.” Given that we’re Hungarian, I suspect that probably at some point while the Hapsburgs controlled Hungary some ancestor of mine rose to prominence and was given the surname “Schulz.” Additionally, as I am American and Ellis Island was a thing it’s not terribly surprising that a lot of Americans think there’s a “t” in there. For some there is. For me, there is not. I’m not always that mad when people miss out the “c” because again, if you don’t speak German or have not encountered that weird “sch” thing before it makes sense you wouldn’t get that.
But my dudes. My duderinos. My duddy-ruddikins. HOW DO YOU MANAGE TO MISPELL IT WHEN IT’S RIGHT THERE IN THE EMAIL? Y’all could have Ctrl+C’ed that.
I had a run in with a guy who decided he wanted tours to be given during Christmas time. Won’t say who or where but you can probably figure it out. By law that’s triple pay so his first little trick was to try to get me to agree to do the tours for just a meal. Lols, no. I got him to both pay me the appropriate rate AND throw in a free meal.
His second trick was to try to get me to take all the guests (some 60 people) in one tour so he only had to pay me for an hour. This was in a Norman castle where some of the architecture is somewhat weak. We used to give tours of 40 people but reduced it to 20 over safety concerns. So there was no way in hell I was taking 60 people tromping over an effectively ruined staircase subject to collapse. I told him he could hire additional guides or have me do three tours, but I categorically refused to violate the safety standards. Apparently he thought I’d “be cool,” or something.
I am most definitely not, “cool.”
Anyways, his “revenge,” was to creatively misspell my name on all our correspondence, on my nameplate, and on the advertisements for the event. Seriously. In every instance he spelled it differently. I had written him multiple times, typed out my name, told him to copy-paste it, and the absurd regulation ignoring troglodyte still got it wrong. So my revenge was telling the other guides he hired to make sure he paid them triple and to bcc his boss and all the relevant supervisors of the site so they knew what he was up to. Dunno where he works now, but that was the last time anyone dealt with his nonsense at that site.
I had another incident where — being a woman online — a man decided that he should get to dictate my opinion to me. Because, as we all know, random white men who don’t read are always more articulate than women or BIPOC with multiple advanced degrees. So that lasted not terribly long. Anyway, right before I blocked him he tweeted out that I’m misspelling my name. Cool story. Homer would like to know how you’re supposed to spell it.
But I think my favourite incident of all time was not when my name was misspelled, but when my brother’s was. Again, we’re Hungarian so you can’t really be racist against us. There’s prejudice sure, but we’re white so as annoying and xenophobic as mischaracterizing Hungarians may be it’s not really properly racist. But when you do it as part of a campaign to rid your class of Latinx students and not get fired for racism, it does become racist.
Oh my yes. Pull up a chair. Get comfy. Auntie Ari gonna dish.
My little brother is quite good at mathematics. I’m decent. I have a doctorate. He skipped high school. All of it. But he was able to do that because he was taking college level classes in middle school. We grew up in Northern California in an area with a decently high Latinx population. And because my father went by a Spanish name (long story, don’t worry about it) we were often assumed to be Latinx ourselves. I mean, somewhat weird given our last name, but Mexican music does have a lot of polka influence and there were a LOT of Jewish refugees who escaped to South America. So, whatever. It does actually follow that people might assume we were Latinx adjacent if not actually Latinx.
My brother’s name though is a fairly common Hungarian one. It’s nothing like any Anglo name, but it’s one of the more phonetic Hungarian names and it is actually super common. (My father’s original name is one of the harder ones which is why he switched to the Spanish version.) So he was close friends with these two kids in his class who were properly Latinx and spoke Spanish at home. And both of them had Spanish first names. And apparently they were both pretty decent students. I wouldn’t know, I’m not their mom, but there was no indication that these were in any way bad kids. The rest of the kids in that class were cookie-cutter white.
So, naturally one day when I was about 16 my home phone rings. My mother and brother were out running errands and my father was still at work so I answered. Foolishly.
Monster teacher immediately set into me cursing and swearing at me that my son was a screw up who would never amount to anything. When I finally was able to get a word in I told her who I was and that I was not old enough to have a child and asked her to clarify. And she accused me of lying and carried on with her profanity laden rant.
I did finally get her to clarify what student of hers she was talking about and she put together syllables that in the mind of an idiot would sort of resemble my brother’s name. Still trying to maintain a façade of politeness I asked her if she meant my brother and pronounced his name correctly for her. By the way, she hadn’t really introduced who she was in all this or explained why she was calling. She had just assumed, hearing what sounded like a woman’s voice on the phone that she both had the right number and was talking to my brother’s mom rather than anyone else who might have picked up the phone. She didn’t even confirm that she was calling a home number and not a place of business. Crazy lady could have been talking to a temp receptionist for all she knew.
My duddy-buddies, she accused me of having constructed a conspiracy with which to mock her.
It is possible that at this point I thanked her for the suggestion and asked if that’s the route she wanted to take in all this but I honestly can’t remember.
Oh, and she was still saying that I was the mother and that this child did not have a sister and I was clearly lying to get out of trouble. Because that all makes perfect sense. This process went on for forty-five minutes until my mother and brother returned and having been called all manner of nastiness and being witness to just all breaches of trust a teacher could possibly breach I was absolutely done. So without covering up the receiver I handed the phone to my poor, bewildered mother with the words, “this b***h wants to talk to you.”
Crazy lady was so insistent that I didn’t exist that she carried on accusing my mom of having invented a daughter to talk to her for the past forty-five minutes apparently complete with the parking in the gravelly driveway and coming through the door while talking to my brother sound effects.
After all this my mom had a long conversation with my brother, then with the parents of these other two kids I’ve mentioned, then with the teacher and principal and then with the principal alone. Apparently, crazy racist b- lady had assigned all the non-Anglo kids new names, would not accept their work if they didn’t use that name, was having them face backwards in class or something, and insisting they not look at their work while writing. Again, she was only doing this to the two Latino boys in the class and my brother. This wasn’t happening to any of the other white kids. Just those three.
I’m not entirely sure what happened but I don’t think she was allowed back to teach the next year and it’s possible she was fired during that semester. Apparently, she had gotten away with this incredibly racist behaviour in the past explicitly because she had aimed it against Latinx, Black, and Indigenous students exclusively. The telephonic abuse I had suffered at her hands was what she had spewed at their BIPOC parents along with threats of further discipline, suspension, and expulsion. There wasn’t really a system for specifically BIPOC to fight back so until she targeted my brother with this nonsense she’d been able to destroy kids’ grades over them not being sufficiently white for her taste.
With difficult names it’s perfectly acceptable to make a good faith mistake. I let people call me Ari because in my head particularly at my most mischievous, that is who I am and because it’s quite simple for English speakers to pronounce. I will often let people choose which version of my name they want to use because I appreciate it is well outside of most people’s cultural and linguistic experience and that even if you have read the classics you might not know the pronunciation. That’s fine. I get it. But with people who try to give me an “Anglified” name or who refuse to use my name because it’s too hard, I make them call me “Dr. Schulz,” and I remind them early and often that my name does actually come from the classics and it’s really only a mark against their own education that they don’t immediately recognize it.
Obviously, part of this comes from my white privilege. “Ariadne,” is a classical Greek name and in formal educations Greek classics are part of the curriculum. Someone from a non-white background with a non-European name deserves to have their name correctly pronounced, but they won’t be able to do my whole sneer-derisively-and-ask-whether-or-not-they-were-educated-in-a-marsh routine. And we’ve come full-circle to colonialism yet again.
Names are important. My brother’s name comes from a family tradition and that’s not uncommon. Sometimes names connect the child to some folk hero, religious figure, or cultural myth. These bits and pieces are rather important in the formation of identity. Names connect people to their family and to a sense of home and belonging. I hate when people mispronounce my brother’s name because that’s my little brother and no matter what happens, including whatever foolishness he gets himself into, he’ll always be my little brother. His middle school teacher lost her job, but is lucky she called because otherwise she might have also been clocked by a 16 year old protecting her baby brother.
So when you intentionally try to sever a cultural connection just because it’s difficult for you to pronounce particularly if you’re doing it to someone who is an immigrant, is of colour or comes from such a community you’re engaging in colonialism. No one’s going to get mad that you can’t perfectly pronounce their name first try. My partner’s family initially thought my name was “Harriet,” because they are French and my partner was referring to me exclusively as “Ari,” which they understood as “Harry,” and … long story short, Christmas was weird that year. But if you try to issue them a new Anglified name then, well, you deserve the hell that’s about to rain down on you.
Let the person you’re talking to define who they are to you and then respect that.