960. 960 is the number of school days across six years of middle and high school that I attended a private school in New York City. 960 also represents the number of days that faculty and staff had to learn my name. Nevertheless, on a spring day of my senior year, I walked to my mailbox and pulled out a yearbook with the names and photos of all the seniors that was given as a graduation keepsake. I flipped to my name – and immediately saw the photo of another Asian-American student above it. It shouldn’t have stung so badly, but it did. I slumped down and cried.
This past virtual semester has been mentally and emotionally taxing, particularly for us BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students. COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting Black and Brown communities because we are often the essential workers who lack the ability to work from home. Many of us also come from cramped, multi-generational households where it is impossible to social distance. However, we’ve learned how to compartmentalize all of our anxieties and worries to show up on Zoom and be professional and engaging. How deflating, then, was it to hear professors mispronounce the names of BIPOC students or to call them by completely different names in cases of mistaken identity. In those moments, I simply froze. Instead of intervening, I instead leaned back in my chair and thought thank God my parents gave me a simple, Western name to help me assimilate.
However, the nagging feeling that something wasn’t right lingered with me throughout the semesters. Names, among other things, provide us with a sense of connection to a specific community and to a rich set of cultural and familial traditions. When someone pronounces my name correctly, the subtext sent to me is: your thoughts matter, your opinions matter, and your existence matters. When they mispronounce it or mistake me for someone else, I feel my fully realized self, full of nuances and complexities, morph into a flattened racialized caricature.
In order to encourage BIPOC students to bring out their full selves, Harvard Kennedy School should address this ongoing issue at both a technical and adaptive level. At a technical level, the school should require that all professors use the Teachly platform and add a new feature where students can record the pronunciation of their names. However, this technical fix would be insufficient. The school should also foster an organizational culture where the faculty feel an internal drive and responsibility to listen to and absorb the name recordings in their free time; for example, the school could organize faculty workshops on microaggressions and unconscious bias. If professors were to get the pronunciations correct on the first day of spring semester, BIPOC students would feel empowered. This adaptive change would also send a strong message to our white classmates that in order to effectively operate in an increasingly pluralistic and multicultural world, they’ll have to exert effort and learn our various backgrounds and identities. By showing respect and deference to the historically marginalized at the Harvard Kennedy School, community engagement will grow stronger, and ultimately, better public policies will emerge.After I wiped away my tears, I grabbed the yearbook and headed over to the dean’s office, where I demanded a reprint with the naming error corrected. The school acquiesced, and a corrected yearbook with my name under my rightful photo landed in my mailbox a few days later. I smiled: 960…961…962…0.