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I Will Not Apologize for My Name!
How to stop this microaggression
It was the fall of 2002. I was a novice program director reviewing applications for the class of 2003 Transitional Year and Internal Medicine Program interns. I found myself reading and rereading a particular personal statement. This applicant, a highly accomplished physician in their home country of East Asia, had recently immigrated to the United States.
After trying to settle in a new country by working any jobs available and simultaneously completing the requirements to retrain in the USA, they had submitted their application. The resumé spoke to their experience, excellence and expertise clinically, in scholarship and education. This, coupled with the authentic, humble personal statement, left me wanting to meet this person.
This particular applicant was applying to both the transitional and the internal medicine program. Realizing that the internal medicine program offered more certainty, I crossed the short distance from my office to the offices of the two other departmental academic leaders, application in hand, my voice and face beaming with excitement. I shared the personal statement and the resumé and my recommendation that this applicant would be an asset to the internal medicine program.
After a brief glance at the CV and the personal statement, the response was a guttural hmmm maybe followed by….“but this person’s name is difficult to pronounce and being from East Asia they will have an accent, which leads to problems being understood on the wards and by staff and patients.”
Taken aback, I think I mumbled something to the effect that we should give the person a chance as I retraced my steps to my office.
I am not sure I felt anything but shock and emptiness for a few minutes. I came back to my office sat on my desk devoid of emotions for a brief period and then feelings of both anger and sadness. I don’t think I was angry at any particular person or thing, I was just angry that this conversation had even occurred in 2002.
That particular incident continued to bother me, although I did not discuss it with the two other academic leaders. I did not have the courage to ask their reasons or the meaning of their comments. We continued our recruiting work, but they did not bring it up again and neither did I. However, I could not let it go.
Having the decision-making prerogative for the transitional-year class, I placed the applicant high on my match list and hoped they would match. They did and excelled. They even got into their home country specialty, one of the four ROAD (radiology, ophthalmology, anesthesiology and dermatology) extremely competitive ones in the US, excelled there too and continue to give back in many ways as faculty in a leading academic center.
The experience has shaped a lot of work that I have engaged in over the years and all my roles, professionally and personally. As an academic leader, chair of the department, assistant dean, member and chair of various committees, as a mother, colleague, and friend, I have been intentional in ensuring that I advocate, role model and promote a culture that is fair, equitable and respectful of each and every individual, irrespective of gender, race, culture, country of origin, place of training, lifestyle preferences, etc.
After experiencing this incidence, I became mindful and hyper-aware of the many times discriminatory statements pervaded the daily conversations. Reviewing applications around the table, I’d hear comments like, “Now how DO you pronounce this name?” followed by a frustrated sigh or sarcastic laughter. Or “Why do they have such long names?” or “Wow, that is a weird name. WHY would someone name their child this?” It is possible that these flippant remarks were made without a second thought, or out of not knowing better or with no specific malintent, however these reasons did not justify them.
I also noticed how frequently the names were shortened without permission, especially names of the non-US graduates or non-traditional white names. And this was not occurring just at my institution. For example, Raj for Rajeshwaran, Dr P for Puroshuttom. Often this was done by the graduate themselves to “fit” and prevent embarrassment.
As I reflect back, I realize the anger I felt was more at myself about my initial silence. Why did I not speak up and advocate for what I knew was right?
Personally, I myself have arrived at the University of Tennessee—Chattanooga via India, London, Saudi Arabia, Yonkers, New York, and Dayton, Tennessee. I too have had to correct people about my own name many times. In fact, I still remember that the first lab coat that I received as an intern had my name misspelled as Mutka rather than Mukta, and this error occurred in written communications, letters of recommendations, and certificates and continues today.
Mutka (notice the t’s placement) in Hindi means a big round earthenware pot to store water and other liquids to keep them cool. Every time I see my name spelled this way, the image of this big round person looms in my mind’s eye, and it is not a pleasant one. Over the years my way of dealing with this is humor as I share and correct people.
My name Mukta, on the other hand, given to me by my parents and grandparents with a lot of love, means a pearl. I love my name and am proud of it. More importantly it reflects me with my emotions, innate gifts, and vulnerabilities. It defines my individuality, my personality and my identity as first and foremost a human being, not an IMG, or Non-US graduate, not an Indian, not a minority, not a woman in academia, but me, Mukta—a unique individual and human being!
So what is in the name? Our individual names are important. Names matter. Names are the first connection with who we are, our identity in this world. Their origin, meaning and context is fundamental to who we are. Names often have a story behind them, a story with some element of reflection by some human that cared for us.
In India, the naming ceremony is a sacred occasion. Often being called by our name as babies is the first memory that we remember, since then we are conditioned to respond to our name. Names give us our individuality and they give us our identity.
Taking time to understand and pronounce names accurately expresses our genuine authentic care and concern for the individual. Shortening, altering and anglicizing names amounts to a form of microaggression, it demonstrates a lack of value, feels dehumanizing! We need to address this if we are to confront bias and foster meaningful relationships. Intentional respect for the names—especially for the members of our team and the patients we care—for creates a stronger work ethic, shows respect and builds trust. Both respect and trust are the cornerstone of professionalism.
That was 2002. We are now in 2022. I often wonder how much has changed and realize how much has not changed. We are—physically and geographically speaking—a global village. Technology and transportation have made our boundaries even more blurred and yet our human connections seem so distant.
Although one should feel empowered to stand up for one’s name, the lack of emotional and psychological safety is a deterrent. For underrepresented individuals, women, and especially those challenged by the intersectionality of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, lack of emotional and psychological safety makes standing up for yourself even more difficult. Having an ethnic sounding name adds to one’s vulnerability.
What can be done to be more welcoming to people from all walks of life?
Just ask! We should be intentional and authentic to request the correct pronunciation of one’s name.
Demonstrate genuine curiosity to learn the story behind the name.
We used to make this practice a routine at our orientations. “Tell me the story about your name!” After an invitation to reflect in solitude we divided the members up in dyads and triads and the conversations that followed were rich, filled with lot of emotion and, more importantly, created a sense of community.
As we were intentional to recognize our team members by their proper name, it fostered mutual respect and relational trust. It sent the message “we see you, we care!” And we emphasized the importance of doing the same with our students and patients, fostering a meaningful and caring physician-patient relationship crucial for their care.
No, I will not apologize for my name! Nobody should or should have to.
As 2022 unfolds, how do you tend to self-care, community and resilience? I will post reflections on these themes and invite you to join in the conversation here or on Twitter or Instagram with your thoughts or what you are doing for self-care and care of others. My book explores such ideas too: Resilient Threads: Weaving Joy and Meaning into Well-Being.