Ottawa·Point of View

Here's how to pronounce my name, and why it matters to me

Raisa Patel's grandmothers chose her given name, and are still among the only ones who pronounce it properly. So when is it OK to correct people, and when do you let it slide?

Raisa Patel hears people mispronounce her name every day, but doesn't always correct them

Raisa Patel's given name is pronounced rye-EE-sah, but few people say it that way. (Lisa Johnson)

In 2014, an interview in a lifestyle magazine made me rethink my identity.

The interview was with Orange is the New Black actress Uzo Aduba, who was asked whether she ever considered changing her name. Aduba, whose full first name is Uzoamaka, recalled a story from her youth in which she asked her mother to change her name to "Zoe."

Aduba argued no one at school could pronounce her name. Her mother replied, "If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka."

Raisa Patel's mother, Bibi, originally spelled her daughter's name with an ï, but later dropped it in favour of an unadorned vowel. (Haroon Patel)

I stopped reading. I whispered the quote under my breath, noticing how easily the names — more complex than my five-lettered own — slipped off my tongue.

I am not a revered Russian composer, an exalted Italian artist or a writer with a world-famous oeuvre. But for the first time, I realized that perhaps my name deserved to be said correctly, too.

My name is Raisa (rye-EE-sah), but it's mispronounced every day. Sometimes multiple times a day. Sometimes by people I'll only meet once. But more frequently by people I'll have to engage with personally or professionally for an extended period of time.

Listen here for the correct pronunciation of Raisa's name:

Sometimes, people sidestep the problem by avoiding saying my name altogether. I've been referred to as "her" in front of a group of coworkers. I use my Western middle name at coffee shops to expedite the ordering process. And more than once, people have asked if they can just call me by a made-up name of their choosing.

A name, however, can carry great cultural and personal significance. Names should be said and treated with respect.

My name, Raisa, is linguistically rooted in Russian and Arabic, but it is spelled and pronounced differently across the world. This was a conscious decision for my mother, who wanted something global, something people could relate to anywhere. I've met people from a surprising variety of countries who recognize it, including those from my father's native South Africa.

My name also comes from my grandmothers: both of mine drew up a list of names before I was born. Raisa was the only name to appear on both lists. While my grandmothers (thankfully) say it correctly, the rest of my family often lapses into casual mispronunciations. 

Names aren't simple, and mispronouncing them can have serious repercussions.

Sometimes this rubs off on my parents, and I find myself in the bizarre position of reminding them how to say the name they so thoughtfully selected.

It may seem trivial to complain about the way your name is pronounced, which is why I don't correct every offender. When you're a woman of colour who has learned to be grateful for her place in the world, the last thing you want to do is to challenge a person of authority about something as simple as a name.

But names aren't simple, and mispronouncing them can have serious repercussions.

Over the years, academic journals have published research on the impact name mispronunciations can have in schools, hospitals and in the workplace. In schools, researchers found this kind of "microaggression" led to students developing anxiety and resentment toward their names, feeling disconnected from their culture and even generating internalized racism. Participants reported keeping quiet in class or feeling forced to go by their middle names — two things I've experienced myself.

A classmate of Raisa's jotted down a phonetic pronunciation of her name after hearing her introduce herself. (Raisa Patel)

As a child, I never dared to correct my teachers and went by names unrecognizable from my own, sometimes for years.

Now an adult, I'm more sympathetic. I've heard information that flits in and out of my head at an alarming speed. I certainly can't pronounce every name I see written on a piece of paper. But I make it a point to pay attention, ask questions and try.

Six weeks after my birth, my mother says she heard a stranger at a doctor's office call my name for the first time. It made goosebumps appear on her skin. She said it marked the moment I was given an identity. 

A city like Ottawa is home to those who changed their names to Western ones when they arrived here, to those whose immigrant parents deliberately gave them names plucked from English novels and to those who bear monikers that grew somewhere far and foreign.

These identities, all of them, deserve to be heard.

Raisa Patel is a student in the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University, and orders coffee under the name Sabrina — her middle name.