Learn to Say Her Name

by Anya Souza-Ponce

Anya is the recipient of our Youth Scholarship Essay Contest for the 11th and 12th grade. She is a junior at Ballard High School in Seattle and a member of the NAACP Youth Council.

Her essay below is in response to the prompt created by the WAESN Youth Advisory Board (YAB): Tell us about a time you broke the rules and why. Anya’s essay was selected by a vote of the WAESN YAB.

The first time a teacher correctly pronounced my name on the first try, I was fifteen.

Typically, substitutes and new teachers would just use my first name, which was familiar to them, while calling my white peers by their full names. They would laugh at their poor pronunciation as if it were something “cute,” treating my name – my identity – as a joke.

In my freshman year attending Ballard High School, my Language Arts teacher was a white man. He considered himself a social ally because he “has native friends,” and they “love him,” and “aren’t bitter.” He would dismiss the vastly unequal effects of racial violence on different characters in a reading, equating the racialized experience of a Black protagonist to that of a white one. Two weeks before the 2021 presidential inauguration, he decided it was too hard to learn to pronounce Kamala Harris’ name.

Kamala Harris. She had just been elected the first female Vice President – and the first VP of color – of the United States. Regardless of one’s politics, she was undoubtedly breaking glass ceilings both for people of color and for women, taking a step toward representation that was completely unprecedented in this country. And yet, this teacher didn’t think she was important enough to learn to say her name. 

There is academic literature available describing the negative effects on children when their non-white names aren’t pronounced correctly in school; when they are given nicknames for the sake of the teacher or their peers; when they are asked to leave their identity at the door, leaving their rich histories behind them; asked to appear smaller and incomplete for the comfort of others. I corrected the teacher every time he mispronounced her name. He dug in his heels. He insisted he’s “just not used to it yet,” and that it was “just a difficult name” for him to remember, echoing what students of color hear on a daily basis.

At the end of the semester, he assigned a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning short essay (CER) as a final project based on our semester’s readings. I decided this class needed more than an analysis on a short-story. Instead, I wrote my CER on the importance and sanctity of names, and the racism and xenophobia underlying the disrespect of names. I cited academic sources and explained the pervasive impacts this has on students of color. I focused on why refusing to learn Kamala Harris’ name is blatantly racist. I said it tells students of color that when our names – our IDENTITIES – are not important enough to learn, we are robbed of the most basic and crucial of dignities: that of our own names. 

After I submitted my paper, the teacher was upset. He scolded me for writing it as my final project, even though he had failed to listen when I had approached him in other ways previously. He wrote me a letter saying this was not the way to protest a racial injustice, that “an academic exercise” is not “the best place for that.” Never mind that I reminded him I had brought it up multiple times in person and in the class chat. Multiple times. 

But if the teacher hadn’t offered a place within his rules in which to bring up our concerns, then I had to create a place of my own, outside of his rules.

Standing up to this teacher helped make me more confident speaking up in class. Although I’d previously expressed when I felt uncomfortable with lesson plans, I wanted to continue my advocacy efforts and make real change – part of which led me to work for the NAACP Youth Council, an amazing organization benefiting Washington’s youth of color. I have learned so much working for them and with other students, and have learned to leverage my privilege to support other marginalized voices and ensure all our experiences are heard. 

Not only have I felt more comfortable, last spring of 2022, I collaborated with a group of other students of color from Ballard to write a two-part protocol to present in all-staff professional development training. The protocol focuses specifically on the importance of naming, and quotes numerous published authors and our own lived experiences. Through this protocol, we hope to reduce harm caused by teachers disrespecting our identities and names. We wrote this so that other kids of color don’t have to wait 15 years for someone to pronounce their name with respect. As Uzoamaka Aduba says, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.” Even beyond that, if white people can learn to say a fictional name like Danaerys Targaryen, pronouncing our names should not foster as much stress and disrespect as it does. We hope that our protocol contributes even a little bit to other teachers making their “rules” more approachable in their classrooms for students of color, so that they don’t *have to* be broken.

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