Change or keep your name? For 'Kamala' and 'Nikki', a story of identity and power

Trump continues to question 'Kamala' pronunciation, and it highlights why some people of color feel a push to code switch.
Vice Presidential Candidate Kamala Harris Delivers Remarks In Washington DC
Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris, delivers remarks during a campaign event on Aug. 27, in Washington, D.C.Michael A. McCoy / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

More than a month after Joe Biden selected Kamala Harris as his vice presidential pick, Donald Trump is still asking how to pronounce her name.

After having referred to her as "ka-MA-la" at a rally this month, Trump told his crowd in Bemidji, Minnesota, on Friday: "Wait a minute, let me get her name here. How do you pronounce it? It's with comma, like a comma, right? Like a comma."

That is, actually, how Harris pronounces her first name. "Comma-la" is the phonetic explainer she's used for years — but the simple question of syllabic emphasis has sparked a long-winded conversation about name mispronunciations, the microaggressions that come along with them and what it means in particular for Americans of different ethnic backgrounds.

For Gerardo Ochoa, whose family came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was a young child, it's a conversation he outlined in a TEDx talk in 2019. To him, the importance of getting someone's name right is rooted in his experiences in elementary school, going back to when a teacher just decided to start calling him "Jerry." It was years before he reclaimed his given name. Now working in higher education himself, Ochoa makes the effort to pronounce his students' names as they would want.

"If you don't take the time to honor and respect people by whatever they want to be called, then how can you expect respect?" Ochoa said in an interview. "We often want to just pronounce a name the way it makes sense to each of us, but it's not about us. It's about the person and the name that they choose."

The choices of what name to be called and how it's pronounced should be personal, as Ochoa says. But historically, especially when it comes to students of color from immigrant families, educators have mangled pronunciations, which researchers have shown can have long-term negative impacts.

Ochoa acknowledged that racism has long played a role in name pronunciation and that sometimes, his Asian American students choose to go by nicknames, instead.

"For some of the Asian American students I work with, who have difficult names for most Western people to pronounce, they choose a much Anglicized name for the sake of belonging and ease," he said.

"So on the one hand, I was trying to reclaim my name and my identity," he said. "They're sort of going for the opposite, where in order to fit in, they want something just a little more easy for other people so that they don't get judged."

That need for ease of pronunciation is further aggravated when seeking political office. Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's given name is Piyush. He chose Bobby as a child after a character on "The Brady Bunch." Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley goes by her middle name rather than her first name, Nimrata.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley addressing the Republican National Convention at the Mellon Auditorium on Aug. 24 in Washington, D.C.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Choosing a nickname, however, has come with its share of criticism, especially within the Indian American community.

In her speech during the first night of the Republican National Convention, Haley claimed that "America is not a racist country" while also explaining how it was difficult for her Indian immigrant parents and her to blend into this country.

Some Democrats were quick to criticize her, pointing out the contradiction in her speech. But some also wove Haley's first name into their critiques, essentially saying that if Haley thinks the country isn't racist, why does she go by "Nikki" instead of Nimrata?

"If America isn't racist, why did Namarata Haley feel compelled to change her name to 'Nikki'?" the South Asians for Biden Twitter account posted. The group, which isn't directly affiliated with the campaign, has since expressed regret over the tweet, which it deleted.

Ochoa shared that from his perspective, criticism of name pronunciation from within a community comes down to a feeling of wanting to preserve culture — something that is inherently tied to the immigrant experience and children of immigrants.

"Identity is not fixed. It's fluid. ... We often have to be able to code switch," Ochoa said. "For some communities of color, that critique is sort of a desperate attempt to hang on to what's been taken from us, which is our identity. I don't really think we're critiquing each other as much as it is a desperate plea to hold on to what remains."

The fluid nature of identity and names also explains the conversation around Harris' name pronunciation. The in-between of original pronunciation and a different nickname altogether is the sphere of somewhat mispronouncing your given name.

In a 2017 interview with David Axelrod, Harris talked about the "many ways" to pronounce her name.

"If you're asking my grandmother, she'd say 'COME-uh-luh,'" Harris says, laughing. "I usually help people pronounce it by saying just think of a comma and add a 'la' at the end, and that's it."

The variation of name pronunciation in different cultures is something Jessica Rett, a professor of linguistics at UCLA, likens to the cultural differences of fashion.

"Like language, people use fashion to signify their cultural identity. This means that, when they decide what to wear, or how to speak (or how to be addressed), they consider who they are and who they want to appear to be (and to whom). And just like my fashion decisions might vary from circumstance to circumstance, my language decisions do too," Rett said in an email.

The complicated aspects of name, identity and culture are often marred not just by misunderstanding but also by deliberate mispronunciations and microaggressions — which many people have tied to racism when it comes to Harris.

For example, Fox News host Tucker Carlson made it a point to mispronounce "Kamala" even when he was corrected by his guest on air.

"So I'm disrespecting her by mispronouncing her name unintentionally. So it begins, you're not allowed to criticize Ka-MA-la Harris or CAM-a-la or whatever," Carlson said sarcastically.

Amid all the mispronunciations, however, there has been a recent shift in Indian Americans' publicly correcting the record on the pronunciation of their names, making sure it's the way they want.

Comedian Hasan Minhaj was a guest on "Ellen'' last year and asked Ellen DeGeneres to pronounce his name the way he wanted, not the way she had been, saying it was important to him because his parents were in the audience that day.

It's a sentiment that's entering politics, as well.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., spoke up during a committee hearing in July when Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., kept mispronouncing her name.

"Jayapal," she said, correcting Lesko's mispronunciation. "If you're going to say my name, please say it right."

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com.