Srijesa Khasnabish, OMS-IV | New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine
June is Immigrant Heritage Month. In honor of this month, I wanted to take a moment to write about a very personal topic: my name. Merriam Webster defines a name as “a word or phrase that constitutes the distinctive designation of a person or thing.”1 A name is one of the first words you learn to say, one of the first words you learn to write, and one of the first things you share when meeting a new person. To me, being called by my name is a sign of respect and recognition of my identity. But it wasn’t always this way.
When I was six years old, my dad asked me what I wanted my very first email account to be called. I told him “Sirina” because 1) I genuinely thought that was how to spell this common American name and 2) because I did not like the confusion my Indian-American name “Srijesa” caused. Even as a child, it was clear that my name was not a typical ‘American’ name.
Studies show that mispronouncing a child’s name can be a racial microaggression, which the authors defined as: “subtle daily insults that, as a form of racism, support a racial and cultural hierarchy of minority inferiority.”2 When teachers or classmates fail to say your name right, it makes you feel a sense of embarrassment and as if you do not belong. No wonder the National Education Association emphasizes the correct pronunciation of names as an equity and inclusion initiative in classroom settings.3
As I grew up, I learned to respond to various versions of my name. There were nicknames like “Sri” and “Jesa,” and iterations of my name that others used by mistake, such as “Sri Lanka” and “Srijanka.” By high school, I developed a thick skin and decided that I would refuse to be called a nickname and take the time to correct my teachers and peers. To make things easier, I started phonetically spelling it out as “Sree-jay-sa.”
To my surprise, one of my teachers profusely thanked me for correcting her when she mispronounced my name. Instead of feeling embarrassed, I felt empowered and clarified the pronunciation of my name to my classmates who might have been too shy to ask. Allowing others to mispronounce your name isn’t doing them a favor; it’s embarrassing for them too. It’s like letting someone walk around with spinach in their teeth—you wouldn’t want them to be embarrassed in those situations and would correct the issue. This should be no different.
Little did I know that these experiences were merely scratching the surface of the name confusion I would experience as a third-year medical student, at the very bottom of the hospital totem pole. One of the surgical residents I worked with always mixed me up with the other South Asian female in my cohort (let’s call her Shivani). I was amused that he caught his mistake on the second to last day of my eight-week rotation.
When I shared this story with Shivani, she remarked that he had mixed her up with yet another Indian student in the previous cohort. We both laughed it off, but when we told our white male peer, he angrily said, “Your names are not that hard, and you look completely different from each other!” While it appeared that the surgical resident would never master our names, I felt content that the others in our cohort had. I interpreted this as a sign that at least the next generation of healthcare providers would not struggle as much with pronouncing my name.
My attending during my obstetrics and gynecology rotation could not pronounce my first name but remembered me by my last name because he thought it sounded like “cannabis.” Though I found myself slightly amused and offended, I brushed it aside because it helped him to remember my face among the myriad of other medical students rotating simultaneously. These name mishaps strike a different chord in the era of COVID-19, where my face is shrouded by a N95 mask among other personal protective equipment. It felt that now, more than ever, my name mattered because it was a sign of recognition among the other women in scrubs and masks.
While I am no expert, here are a few tips for others with less Eurocentric names that may be difficult to pronounce:
Own your name with confidence. Politely but firmly ask to be called your full name and nothing less if that’s what you prefer. Those who care will take the time to learn and pronounce it correctly.
Encourage people to work on correct name pronunciation even when busy; just be patient with the time it may take. If society can learn to say European names that are not phonetically spelled (think British and Polish names), we can learn to pronounce other challenging names too. Let’s work together to raise societal standards so that future generations can live in a more inclusive America.
Take the time to pronounce the names of those around you correctly. Our actions speak louder than our words.
Another tool I recently discovered is called Name Drop, which allows you to record yourself pronouncing your name and embed this in your email signature. While this won’t help me to correct my colleagues on the hospital floors, at least it is available to anybody I email.
To honor the heritage of the immigrants who have made this country what it is today, let’s take a moment this Immigrant Heritage Month to reflect on recent name-related injustices in society, including a story about the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings (warning: violent content against women). Let’s use this example and my story to fortify our commitment to pronouncing the names of those around us correctly.
ACOFP is a community of current and future family physicians that champions osteopathic principles and supports its members by providing resources such as education, networking and advocacy, while putting patients first.
Student doctor Khasnabish, thank you for taking the time to share your experience and highlighting such an important topic for both the learners and patients.