In the Name of Respect

The deliberate mispronunciation of the Vice-President-Elect’s name is part of a larger political playbook.

Kamala Harris has enough challenges ahead of her.  Contending with opponents who willfully mispronounce her name should not be one of them.

graphic by Lucie Flagg

Kamala Harris has enough challenges ahead of her. Contending with opponents who willfully mispronounce her name should not be one of them.

By Lucie Flagg, North Allegheny Senior High School

Last August while discussing presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, Fox News host Tucker Carlson made a crucial mistake. Throughout his interview with Democratic political consultant Richard Goodstein, Carlson continued to pronounce “Kamala” as “Ka-MAHL-Uh.” The now Vice-President-Elect’s name is pronounced “KAHM-Uh-La,” with an emphasis on the first syllable.

Clearly frustrated by the reporter’s mispronunciation, Goodstein interrupted him.

“This is something that will serve you and your fellow hosts on Fox,” he said, before explaining the proper pronunciation, which he compared to punctuation—“COMMA-la.”

Okay. So what?”

— Tucker Carlson, Fox News

Carlson’s response? “Okay. So what?

He continued to mispronounce her name throughout the interview, which was very quickly seen all over Twitter. 

Confusion behind Kamala Harris’ name is not a new topic—we’ve been discussing it since she first set foot in the spotlight on a national level. We can’t expect people to understand the pronunciation and spelling of every name, but there’s a bold line between a genuine mistake and disrespect—a line that Tucker Carlson crossed.

Carlson’s response to his own mistake is not especially unique. Senator David Perdue (R-GA) and President Donald Trump have both publicly mispronounced Kamala’s name and mocked it in the process.

Even President-Elect Joe Biden has mispronounced her name. The difference? Joe Biden corrected himself.

Just the other week, I overheard my father and grandfather having a political conversation. When the mispronounced “Ka-MAHL-Uh” was tossed around several times, I interjected and corrected my father. He rolled his eyes and ignored me, continuing to pronounce her name incorrectly throughout the rest of their conversation. 

I recount that conversation not to show disrespect towards my father or his political values but rather to try to understand a pattern of disrespect that seems particularly prevalent on the right at the moment. When you can’t fight back politically, you do it personally—it’s the way both parties work. But to target something as valuable and vulnerable as a name seems ruthless.

Think of roll-call on the first day of school. Teachers try their hardest to correctly pronounce names and may even ask for help. If they make a mistake, they’ll apologize and take note of it. 

In situations where the mispronunciation of “Kamala” is truly a mistake, this simple act of apologizing is all that’s necessary. It’s embarrassing—sure—but it shows decency.

But all too often, mispronounced names belong to people of color and go unapologized for. 

Harris’s uncommon first name has an origin tracing to Hinduism. The word “Kamala” means “lotus” in Sanskrit and is also another name for the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. As the first Indian-American and Black woman to be elected for the Vice-Presidency, Kamala’s name will be one for the history books and one to be studied by children for generations to come, so proper pronunciation is crucial.

We mustn’t look at these unique names and ignore them or act like they’re too difficult to say.”

We learn how to pronounce names like “Amerigo Vespucci” and “Dmitri Mendeleev” in school. Heck, we even know how to pronounce some crazy places here in Pennsylvania—“Monongahela,” “Versailles,” and yes—even “Zelienople.” To say that “Kamala” is too hard to pronounce is either flat-out lazy or, worse, proudly disrespectful. In reality, her name is not only simple to pronounce but is also a representation of the beauty of diversity in America.

I can’t point fingers and say that Tucker Carlson’s mispronunciation of “Kamala” was a racist act—I don’t know anything about his intentions. But what I can say is that it was disrespectful to the Vice-President-Elect and Richard Goodstein, who used his voice and privilege to speak out about deliberately improper pronunciation. 

Unique names will always be susceptible to mispronunciation. It’s how we handle them that must change. A person’s name is their persona and their individuality, and it’s about time we respect them all.

This story was originally published on The Uproar on January 8, 2021.