What’s in a name? Oh, just my identity

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Illustration courtesy of Margot Heron

My name is Serena Karina Pelenghian. If you read the three words of my name as Suhreena Kureena Pulengyin, you’re wrong. My name is actually pronounced by its Armenian pronunciation of Sĕrĕnah Kahreenah Pĕlĕngiahn (roll both of the R’s). The first three letters of my name, Ser, means “love” in Armenian. I have never met a person outside of my Armenian community who doesn’t butcher my name into a whiter version. If I build up the courage to correct them, they look at me confused. I feel the need to shorten my name or say “Suhreena is fine,” but that ignores who I am. People with non-white names feel the need to mispronounce their own names to fit in. Thus, mispronouncing is more than a slip; it ignores a person’s cultural and personal identity.

Only when I left the Armenian community did I understand how “difficult” my name was. I grew up in an Armenian school, which meant everyone knew how to say my name correctly. I never thought of it as anything difficult or non-typical until I came to college. Starting from orientation, people read my name as Suhreena –– so I assumed my name was Suhreena. I figured that I’d rather have them say it that way than try to pronounce it right and fail.

I recently came across a podcast called “The racist practice of mispronouncing names.” The host, Keya Roy, faced a similar struggle to me. “I always felt like by giving in to that pressure to conform and allowing my name to be butchered, I was somehow making life easier for others,” Roy said. I spent my entire first year telling people a lie about my own name  a lie about the cultural identity of my name — for their convenience.

The very few Armenian friends I’ve made at Oxy know how to say my name correctly. That always gave me a sense of home. The summer after my first year, I went back home, and people called me Sĕrĕnah for the whole summer. It sounded more like me. When I came back to Oxy my sophomore year, it did not feel right to call myself someone I am not. I had to reintroduce myself as Sĕrĕnah. People questioned  and still question the sudden change in the pronunciation of my name, but that has been my name from the start. My friends call me “Ser” now. It’s not because they do not want to say my name, but because it’s a symbol of the greater meaning to my name: love.

When I go to the Green Bean, I hesitate when asked, “Can I get your name, please?” I say “Sĕrĕna,” get the “What did you just say?” stare, and then end up spelling out “S-E-R-E-N-A.” I know they will butcher it if I don’t spell out my name, and that hurts more. But once my drink is ready, the baristas inevitably call out “Suhreena” anyway.

Some argue that mispronouncing someone’s name the first time they see it is not problematic, because it’s like pronouncing any other non-English word — if you don’t know how to speak the original language, it’s hard to get it right on the first try. But the person with the non-white name should not be afraid to correct the mispronouncer, and the mispronouncer should make a conscious effort to respect that. We can’t fully respect a culture if we can’t pronounce the names of those within that culture. Also, it’s frustrating when I feel pressure not to correct people on my name. I feel like others expect me to assimilate into American culture when they don’t respect my own culture.

Zuheera Ali, Roy’s co-host, explains this concept: “My name is my identity, and allowing someone else to say it wrong is stripping me of that. I feel like as a woman of color, I’m expected to make these changes, especially when I’m at school. But asking me to make my name easier to pronounce is a very unfair way that I have to change.” Just like Ali, I felt like others expected me to make my name easier and more typical. Uzoamaka Nwanneka Aduba is a Nigerian-American actress who also faced this challenge. She recognizes that most kids just want to fit into their social surroundings. This is the problem  we should not feel the need to cater to American society just for convenience’s sake.

Sometimes we are even expected to change our names to a completely new name. Hasan Minhaj, a famous Indian comedian, addressed this issue on The Ellen Show when DeGeneres mispronounced his name. He explained that when he first started comedy, many told him to change his name entirely but refused. During the show, he poked fun at the idea of white names as typical, and said, “If you can pronounce Ansel Elgort, you can pronounce Hasan Minhaj.” It is dehumanizing when we are expected to change our identities for others. As Roy explains, this is damaging to our confidence. My first year, I definitely did not have the confidence I have now — I just wanted to fit in.

Before you assume someone’s name, make sure you ask them how to say it. Do not make a personal decision to change their name for the sake of your own convenience. Instead, respect their identity through their name. Do not call me Suhreena ever again, because that’s not my name. My name is Serena Karina Pelenghian.

Serena Pelenghian is a sophomore Critical Theory & Social Justice major. She can be reached at spelenghian@oxy.edu.