Blog Post

Let’s Talk: About Naming Microaggression

By: Associate Conference Minister Daniel Ross-Jones

I don’t remember why I was called to the principal’s office in first grade, but I still clearly remember part of the encounter. One of the administrative workers came on the classroom intercom loudspeaker to ask my teacher to send Daniel Jones to the office.

I remember my teacher pausing for a few moments. She knew there wasn’t a student by that name in her class. But the mental wheels turned for her to respond that he’d be coming right away, and she told me to go see why they needed me in the office.

When I got to the office and told the secretary that I was there because my teacher told me I should come down, the secretary asked me my name. “Daniel Ross-Jones,” I replied. She looked at me blankly for a moment and said, “Who? What’s your name again?”

“Daniel Ross-Jones” I said again. I was feeling very nervous, because I didn’t know why I was there or what I could have done to wind up being called to the principal’s office in the middle of the day. I wasn’t a troublemaker in school. Indeed, then as well as now, I was immensely concerned with doing the right thing.

The secretary continued to look at me blanky for a few more moments before her face changed. “Oh! Daniel Jones!”

“No,” I said. “That’s not my name. It’s Daniel Ross-Jones.”

“You don’t count the first part,” she told me matter-of-factly. “You count your last last name, and that’s Jones.”

When my parents got married, both my dad and my mom chose to retain their family last names. My dad is still Jones and my mom is still Ross. (And I am intentional in the order I said that just now. Please sit with what you’re feeling for a moment if your initial reaction is something like, “Of course your dad didn’t change his name.”)

Both my sister and I were given the name Ross-Jones. Ross is neither of our middle names, it is the first four letters of our last name, which is then joined by a hyphen and five more letters.

If I charged each person 10¢ who has ever asked me or wondered aloud in my presence something on the variation of, “What if your future spouse doesn’t want to change their name? Will you just hyphenate more? Or what if they’re a hyphen, too! Then will you have four last names?! That’s just crazy!” I would have probably been able to attend seminary without student loans.

I knew the school secretary was wrong then just as much as I know now. Yet, from that day forward, I personally had to face the regular irritation of a social construct that told me in some small way, “You’re different, and you’re the one who’s wrong. You don’t belong.”

Later in life I found the term for that: microaggression.

As a teenager, I internalized the microaggression. I proudly declared I was going to change my name as soon as I could. I was sick of having to adapt to other people and institutions. Web forms (then and now) wouldn’t take punctuation in name fields, often with the completely unhelpful and most othering error message possible, “Please enter a valid last name.”

As I moved between states, my driver’s license or vehicle registration would read some variation on Ross-Jones, Rossjones, or Ross Jones, depending on the state DMV’s perceived cost-benefit analysis of having a programmer spend a few more hours on concatenating strings properly in the computer code.

(California’s computer system still doesn’t recognize a hyphen in the last name field of DMV vehicle registrations, nor does the TSA or airlines. Once, when I was on a road trip out of state and got pulled over in a checkpoint operation, the difference in my name between my [correct] driver’s license and vehicle registration card required an extra 15 minutes of being detained while the officer was satisfied that the owner of the vehicle, Mr. Jones, had given Mr. Ross-Jones permission to use the vehicle.)

Names matter. California’s US Senator and Vice President Elect, Sen. Kamala Harris, is living this experience. We in the Northern California Nevada Conference, committed to dismantling racism, quickly and rightly deplore the racial microaggressions being hurled against Sen. Harris by politicians, media pundits, and others who intentionally mispronounce her given name to dog whistle that Kamala is not a name worthy of the office she holds or that which she will soon hold.

Are we as quick to address microaggressions in our own congregations, Associations, and Conference?

I have seen misspellings and heard mispronunciations of members and leaders of our churches, Associations, and Conference – especially our BIPOC members and leaders – at least weekly since I have been an Associate Conference Minister here.

Yes, sometimes it is accidental. In each initial instance, the person whose name is being misstated has responded with grace, usually gently correcting the mistake or appreciating others leaning in to correct the writer or speaker.

Once a mistake is made three times or more, it’s intentional. It’s stating, “You don’t belong here.” It’s saying, “You’re different, and different is wrong.”

Sometimes it takes the form of encountering a name that one does not immediately know how to pronounce, and rather than graciously admitting confusion, the force of the potential mistake is pushed onto the named person themself: “I know I’m not going to get this right, but it’s good enough.” Or, “I know this is wrong, I’ll never get it right.”

Sometimes it’s spelling a person’s name correct in an email address, but incorrect throughout the body of the email itself.

Sometimes it’s shifting the accented syllable from where it properly is to where you think it should be.

Or sometimes it’s removing punctuation and letters that you see redundant or unnecessary.

In each instance it’s the same: diminishing the Imago Dei in each one.

If you don’t know how to pronounce a person’s name, don’t know how to properly spell it, or can’t immediately identify its constituent parts based on hearing it, there is nothing wrong with telling someone, “I want to get this right. Could you help me with your name? Your name is important and I want to give it the respect it deserves.”

If they respond with a casual dismissal, it’s probably not them actually saying, “It’s OK. Everyone gets it wrong so you can continue to get it wrong and I won’t care.” Sometimes I do fill out order forms or tell people my last name is actually Jones. When I’m doing that, it’s because I’m too tired or annoyed in that moment to fight the battle of getting my name right. Things that one has been fighting since the 1980’s are wholly exhausting in 2020.

Stick with it. Take the time to learn. Apologize when you get it wrong and work to get it right.

6 Comments

  • Dea

    Well written! I am one of those folks of color whose name gets regularly mangled. Most people don’t even apologize and keep on with it. So, like little you, I got tired of it and go by my nickname.

    But this is a great reflection on the subtler aspects of racism and privilege via microaggressions.

  • John McGuire

    I think presenting people’s confusion by and/or prejudice against having a hyphenated last name as similar to how Black people have been and still are treated supports racism. Racists’ beliefs include the following two beliefs about biased actions against Blacks, including microaggressions. One is that their continuance is due to Blacks’ behavior, statistical, and would go away if Blacks simply changed their behavior. A second is that they are on the same lesser to greater spectrum as confusion by and/or prejudice against choices, choices such as having/keeping a hyphenated last name. Statistically, choices, from child molestation to supporting Trumpism to liking vanilla more than chocolate do have genetic components, and we have freedoms such as Freedom of Speech to protect important choices even when they have genetic components, however they are still choices: being Black isn’t. Thanks and stay well.

  • Bill Schroeder

    I certainly relate. Growing up in a German community the oe is an umlout pronounced as an a… thus Shray-der. Our kids gave up and went with Schroeder [Schroo-der] Bill Schroeder…. [Shray-der]

  • Hannah Maggiora

    Thank you for this well-thought out reflection on the erosive quality of subtle but constant microaggression. My last name is Italian and has NEVER been pronounced correctly. In school I cringed in my seat when the teacher got close to the M names. After several butcherings, the teacher sometimes looked at me in a challenging manner and asked me how to pronounce it, but more often the teacher made one try, waited for me to say, “Here” and then move on. Dismissive and embarrassing.

  • John McGuire

    Presenting confusion about and/or prejudice against spelling one’s name with a hyphen as similar to racist acts against Black people supports racism. Two of the beliefs racists believe are the following: One is that racism against Black people endures because of behavior by Black people, statistically, and that if Black people changed their actions, then racism against them would go away. The second is that prejudice against people who are Black is similar to prejudice against people whose actions aren’t liked. It is true, statistically speaking, that there are genetic components to desires, from child molestation to Trumpism to vanilla over chocolate. And it is true that we believe in protecting people’s right to do some actions with freedoms such as Freedom of Speech. And it is true that we hold people responsible for their actions, not for their desires. But putting prejudice against people for being Black, even in “microaggressions”, into the same ball park or spectrum as prejudice against people because of their choices supports racist thinking.
    .When a Black church member who has been a member of a Congregational church for forty five years is aggressively confronted with questions from a new person about why she is there when she stops by to pick up a prayer book while non-Black Church members come and go without being questioned, it supports racism to see that as similar to confusion about or prejudice against some thing like using a hyphen in one’s last name.
    Thanks and be well

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