On a family vacation one summer, my mother, aunt and I went to look at an open house. When we walked in, we met the lovely real estate agent named Carol. “Welcome,” Carol said, “What are your names?” My mother, whose name is Rajminder answered, “Hi, my name is Raj” and my aunt whose name is Jagbeer, replied, “Hi, my name is Jag.” Carol then turned to me, and I proudly said, “Hi, my name is Gurkamal.” To my disappointment, Carol responded with “Oh, that’s a mouthful! Do you have a nickname?” I simply replied with “No, my name is Gurkamal.” For the rest of the showing Carol did not acknowledge me to avoid having to call me by my name.
Many versions of this experience have followed me throughout my life. A teacher in high school once called me “Gurfunkal,” just freely adding letters that don’t even exist in my name. This enabled a whole slew of my classmates to poke fun, some just passing it off as being “good natured fun” which made things quite tense for me.
My name comes from the Punjabi culture, as I am half Indian and half African Canadian. It means God’s heart, it is three syllables, and it is pronounced just as it is spelled, Gur-ka-mal. There is more respect in just asking how to pronounce one’s name properly rather than assuming the pronunciation. Just as we take an initiative not to assume one’s pronouns, names are no different. They are an essential part of one’s identity. Names hold significance, power, and strength. For generations, society has placed much importance on civility; being courteous and gracious, however, not enough regard has been given to the disrespect and disempowerment one feels when their name is pronounced incorrectly.
Names hold incredible power. They can uplift and bring dignity to a person, or they can demoralize and intimidate. This mindset dates back to colonial times when a name too hard to pronounce was just replaced with something much easier for the colonizer. This mindset has unfortunately become normalized through generations. If more people realized the importance of this concept, we would be able to take a step towards decolonization.
People like to say they’re “woke” when they are able to pronounce an ethnic name of a celebrity, but that is not the case. We all have daily opportunities to learn from people (even if they are not celebrities), therefore, we’ve had the opportunity to be “woke” this entire time. We just need to make a conscious choice of whether we want to respect one another or not.
So, I would like to leave us all with a thought. Let’s take a step towards unifying instead of dismantling. When you come across someone with a name you might find challenging, ask them how to pronounce their name properly and how they would like to be addressed. It really is just that simple. My name is Gurkamal, what is your name?
Gurkamal Brown is a WTC board member.