EP 24: Does it matter to Say My Name, correctly?

Well, it should, and Dr Elaine Laforteza has been studying the effects when a persons’ name is either ignored or continually mispronounced. She explains why pronouncing names matters and, more importantly, gives practical tips on how to help people pronounce your name correctly.  


Manisha: Welcome to With Not For, a podcast by the Centre for Inclusive Design, coming to you from the lands of the Cammeraygal people here in North Sydney, Australia. My name is … Manisha Amin. It’s not Manish, it’s not Mani, or even Michelle. It’s Manisha.

So how important is it to get someone’s name right? And how does that affect our relationship with others? What does it say when people can’t say your name, or won’t try to pronounce it properly? Why is this important in a work context as well?

To help us answer these questions, I’m very pleased to have author, podcaster, lecturer and friend, Dr Elaine Marie Carbonell Laforteza, who is driving a project called Say My Name, which is an initiative here at the University of Technology, Sydney. It’s a project where we look to understand and recognise non-Anglo names. Welcome, Elaine.

Elaine: Thank you so much, Manisha. I’m so thrilled to be here today and to speak about, well, our names.

Manisha: Absolutely. And so can you tell me, before we get into that, a little bit about yourself, and how you ended up in this space in the first place?

Elaine: Yeah, sure. So I’m, like you said, I’m Elaine. And I work as the Equity and Diversity Project Officer at the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion at UTS, which is as much of a mouthful as my full name actually is. I’m also a mum of two young, beautiful kids. And I have to mention my mum, otherwise she’ll have words with me, which won’t be nice words. I’m also a wonderful daughter, and a wife. And I’ve lived in four continents. So I’ve lived in Asia, in Europe, North America, and now Australia. And this is the only continent or country I’ve lived in where it’s more of a – we have a monolingual mindset. And I found that quite confronting when I first got here. I still find it quite confronting when I’m here now, because it’s very different to my childhood and how I was raised.

Manisha: And how was that childhood, then? Can you tell us about the difference?

Elaine: Oh, yes, well, I was born in the Philippines, and I was there for about seven or eight years. Our national language is Filipino, which is comprised of Tagalog, which is one of the largest linguistic groups in the Philippines, Spanish, American English, and kind of a hybrid version of all of that. And I have my own language, my mother tongue, which is Ilocano. So already, we have two languages there, and then I learnt English at school.

Then we moved to France. I already had those other languages, then had to learn French; I speak it badly now. But all throughout my childhood, it was always quite mixed. So mixed linguistically, and culturally. And in America, we lived in really quite Latino kind of mixed communities; lots of Filipinos, lots of Asian migrants, Latino, or Latinx people, African Americans, it was all very mixed.

And then we moved to the northern beaches of Australia in the ’90s, which was I was the only brown person in my whole primary school. And I felt it, because they would ask, they would ask, like, “What are you?” Or “Can you speak English?” and really slowly as well, or not even – bypassing me completely and asking someone next to me, like a teacher, “Can she speak English? What even is this?” Yeah, so it was quite different.

Manisha: How old were you at the time?

Elaine: I was 10. So we had moved quite a lot in my childhood. So that was my norm, and kind of, I guess, diversity and fluidity, and kind of unremarkable in different spaces, because I was just like everyone else. But here, I felt quite remarkable, but not in the good way.

Manisha: Right. It’s an interesting one, school, as well, right? We were just talking about this beforehand. When I was at school, and I came to Australia when I was five or six, my teacher asked me if she could call me Michelle. And I thought that that was great. And I was like, “Yep, absolutely. And can I call you, Hannah?” And she was quite taken aback about the fact I wanted to change her name, but I just thought everyone’s names got changed. When was it that you started to feel this difference; when you came to Australia, or later on? Because in some ways, Elaine seems like a pretty common Western name.

Elaine: Yeah. And it is, isn’t it? It’s really funny though, with Elaine, and then people see me, so I’m visibly not white. Very obvious that I’m of Asian heritage. I’ve got brown skin. And then so they see, people see that, they see my name and my last name. And sometimes they brown up my first name. So they go, “Oh, Eniali,” or they pronounce it in a really different way. Or I’ve even gotten people, someone renamed me as Leilani. And I love that name. But I thought, Where did that come from? And they said, “Isn’t that your Filipino name?” I’m like, “Oh no, my Filipino name is also Elaine.” But I love Leilani. But I thought that’s really interesting. You’ve just renamed me in the image or the sound of what you assume I look to sound like and be like.

But yeah, and it was from the get-go, even before we came to Australia. Because my stepdad is British, but he lived in Australia for a long time. That’s why my mum and I are here. And so knowing him and knowing his Australian friends, white Australian friends, yeah, we kind of got used to that way of not knowing how to say our names. Yeah, even before we got here. And then when we got here, it was really pronounced, because then kids would also not – were just very – didn’t know how to say my name. So I actually changed my name.

Manisha: Oh.

Elaine: Yeah, I changed my name to my stepdad’s name. Because I didn’t want to always say, “Oh, actually it’s Laforteza. This is how you pronounce it. You say it how it’s spelt.” So I just changed it to Goddard. And then no one, no one mispronounced that. I did get Jesusard, because God-ard, like child of God, which I like, I took on, I owned it.

Manisha: Yes, I can see that.

Elaine: Yeah. That’s it. Yeah. But for that whole primary school, Year 5, Year 6, Elaine Laforteza didn’t exist; I killed her.

Manisha: And then when did she come back,

Elaine: She came back because my mum said, “You know what, we never legally changed your name. And you’re going into high school, your passport, your Australian, going for Australian citizenship, and so on.” So we needed to have all of our papers in order, if that makes sense. Because everything from school was Elaine Goddard, my academic transcript and the certificate, it was all Elaine Goddard, there was no, Elaine Laforteza. And she said, “This is going to be problematic, because we need to prove that we’ve actually been living here for a certain amount of time to go for our citizenship.” And yeah, and I was not happy. I thought, huh? But I’ve already rebranded myself as the son – the child of God.

Manisha: So did it actually change your view of yourself –

Elaine: Oh, yeah.

Manisha: – this change of name, and then this change back again? How did it impact? And I know we often talk about work, but I think it’s interesting thinking about this, whenever it happens. How did that change your ability to connect and fit in?

Elaine: Yeah, oh, it was a massive impact on how I saw myself, and my connection to my Filipino culture in particular, and to feel proud of that. Which I didn’t. I actively excised myself from being overtly Filipino. I mean, physically, it’s very obvious, but in what I did, what I was interested in, and it was a very strategic and concerted effort on my part to kind of excise those parts of myself. To the point that I was so disconnected from it, it’s a significant loss, and I still mourn the time that I spent away from that and feeling proud.

Yeah, I had massive internalised racism, which I feel if only other people were more, I suppose, genuine in their efforts to say my name, and know about my culture, or my Filipino heritage, then the journey to kind of erase that would have come much earlier. But I got really super proud of it during high school, through my mum and through my mum’s friends, and probably through my mum’s divorce, where we could both, I guess, be more authentically ourselves. Yeah.

And I started working in community media with the Philippine Community Herald, which is a newspaper, and felt so connected to what it means to be Filipino in Australia, and to learn, relearn the language, only speak in our language, which, yeah, and I made a complete turnaround, and I did ask my mum, “Can we stop speaking in English? Can we speak in Ilocano? Because I’d like to kind of learn that again.” Yeah.

Manisha: So moving ahead a few years, all the way through to when you’re at UTS. And you decide to put together this incredible campaign called Say My Name. So can you tell us about how that came about, and why you thought it was important to do this at the university particularly?

Elaine: Yeah, oh, that’s a great question, Manisha. Because it was actually started by University of Sydney. So their Mosaic Network. And that’s a group that invites all staff members from USYD who come from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. And we saw people from Mosaic having something in their email signature about how to pronounce your name, or their names. And from our point of view, from UTS, the Multicultural Women’s Network in particular, we were quite impressed by the simplicity but effectiveness of that approach.

So we reached out to them and said, “What is this? What does it look like? How have people responded?” And people said it has been quite a significant change that people that they then communicate with, do know how to say their names from the get-go. And it’s been a beautiful effect. And I wanted to extend that by creating resources, and making it kind of a really assets-based approach, that we can all do this together. It is hitting on some really complex and complicated things. But it’s something that we can all champion, as well.

So I did work with socially responsive design students at UTS, who were able to create the visual assets for this campaign. And we have infographics that tell people how to ask someone to say your name correctly, and also how to tell someone, “OK, this is actually how you can say my name correctly,” in a really respectful and, I think, really friendly kind of way.

Manisha: And it’s a really interesting thing; did you find that you had much pushback to this?

Elaine: No. Yeah.

Manisha: Were you expecting pushback?

Elaine: Not partic – no, I think maybe I came at it quite naively, and I thought everyone will love this. But it’s been – what I didn’t expect actually was the impact of it. Because I thought, OK, like a few of us will really like it and champion it. And it means something, but it’s not overly significant, if I can say that. But when we launched the campaign, we shared the resources, we got people on board with the project, with developing a video and storytelling and so on. The impact of that was quite – to me anyway – it was quite startling. Because it is our names, and it might just be our names, but it’s something we carry with us all the time. So it’s not something we can discard and pretend it doesn’t exist; it always exists. It’s always the baggage that we carry with us through life.

 And I think the impact of people coming together to talk about it, and to create a materials for this project, by the end of it, a lot of us were quite emotional and in tears. And I am getting quite teary now thinking about it, because it is that impactful. And that’s what I didn’t expect.

Manisha: And when we think about that, I think that’s a really interesting thing as well. So sometimes we’re emotional, and we expect to be emotional.

Elaine: Yes.

Manisha: Sometimes these things can be really triggering, and in positive ways, as well as negative, but they can be quite emotional when we’re not expecting it.

Elaine: Yes, yeah.

Manisha: When you’re working in an organisation, and this happens, what are some of the things that you found helped to keep this as a safe space, and a place where those emotions were dealt with in the appropriate way?

Elaine: Yeah, that’s a beautiful question. Because it is really about checking in with the people involved in this project. And to always give people the option to check out or to opt out, and to go at people’s pace. So some people might be at different levels of their journey to this kind of self-acceptance, is what it really is. Because we are so encouraged, not to, I suppose, be familiar with names that are deemed tricky or unfamiliar or foreign, usually.

So there are people who you would, or maybe people would assume, OK, they’d be really up for this project. But sometimes people don’t want to talk about it, because it is quite triggering. And it can be quite harmful to talk through the process at this point in their life. So we do have to recognise, and as leading this campaign and this project, I do have to be quite cognisant of that and reflective, and reflect on OK, what kind of level am I pitching this? So this person, what kind of information and what kind of language do I use to socialise this campaign with this particular group, or this particular person, because it’s different?

Manisha: I really like that. Because what you’re saying, which is really, in some ways, kind of obvious, but also, in some ways counterintuitive, is that making someone comfortable doesn’t necessarily mean that they should say yes.

Elaine: Yes.

Manisha: Making someone comfortable gives them the option of saying yes or no, and that’s really different, I think, to the way we sometimes think about what making someone comfortable is.

Elaine: Yes. I think the option to have options is a kind of freedom as well. And so even if someone at the start of the project goes, “OK, I’m all for this,” and then they opt out, that’s completely fine as well. Or some material, for example, we we’ve made merch to accompany this campaign, and it has “Say my name, my name is important. My name has heritage, my name is history, say it,” right. But for some people, even with supposedly difficult names, they might not vibe with that. So you don’t have to take it, that doesn’t have to be your reality, even if it’s the reality of other people involved with this project. And that’s completely fine, because we are talking about respecting diversity, which is at the heart of this project.

Manisha: And I think there’s something interesting here as well, in this idea of how comfortable people are in actually expressing their discomfort. Not only for the person who might have trouble saying someone’s name, but also for the person whose name might be a name that people have difficulty saying, in terms of stepping up and saying, “Actually, that’s not right.” Sometimes we’re taught to be – to not rock the boat. Did you find that this played out, and was a different for students versus staff?

Elaine: Yes, there’s definitely a power differential there. So I’ve also been a teacher for many years. So I get lots of different students; domestic, international, different names, and so on. And for some students, they’ve told me “This is the first time where a tutor or a lecturer has actually asked me how to say my name correctly,” or they’ve told me instances of a tutor saying, “Well, , that name’s too difficult. I’ll just call you Sam.” And there’s no back and forth with that. They’ve just been renamed, rebranded as this person that’s not them.

So immediately, they check out. They don’t feel like they have value in that classroom, because this person who’s meant to lead it, and has power in that situation, has already said, “OK, actually, who you are, I can’t even be bothered trying to know that. You’re just Sam now,” or whatever. So yeah, there’s a massive difference there. Because then the student already feels disempowered, and they don’t know who to tell, “OK, well, I don’t feel like I’m getting anything out of this class. I don’t belong in this class.” Who do they go to? If it’s someone with a scholarship, or with visa issues, or an attachment to that degree because of their visa status, then they just go along with it. They don’t rock the boat, because the consequences are quite significant, yeah. And so but with staff members, it’s not to that same degree.

Manisha: That’s interesting. And it’s interesting when you talk about Australia being a bit of a monoculture; we’re an interesting and very quirky culture as well.

Elaine: Yeah.

Manisha: And so Australians often like to play with people’s names, use nicknames. And those nicknames can come through in different ways, right. So, for instance, redheads are known as Bluey, skinny people, Fats, and we love to end words or names with IE, Y, or U, like Mikey, Joey, Davo, and so on. How does that fit in with Say My Name?

Elaine: I think the way it fits in is about are we punching down? And if we are, then that’s not cool. That’s not inclusive. That’s not respectful. Because the Say My Name campaign is all about respect, and understanding why that’s important. And I feel with that kind of jocular camaraderie that comes from the Aussie way of maybe making names like that, like, I play into that as well, too. And my name has been, I guess, Aussie-fied – I’m not sure – not Ezza or anything like that. But just E, just simple E. And I quite like that. And if I’m quite familiar with someone, they can call me E, and I call myself E in their presence. And if you can mispronounce that, that’s quite – I don’t know what that says.

Manisha: That’s quite difficult, yes.

Elaine: It’s literally just the letter of the alphabet. But yeah, it is about that culture of respect and not punching down.

Manisha: Right. And how do you think people deal with, or what’s your advice to people when someone’s been calling them a different name for years, but they’d like to make a change?

Elaine: Yeah, and I think that can be quite difficult, because you’ve already built up this relationship where someone knows you as a particular name and way of pronouncing it. But I think the important thing is to be honest. And you can say, “I know you’ve been pronouncing my name like this for however long we’ve known each other, and people have been saying the same thing. But actually, I would prefer if you call me this, or you pronounce it like this.” And you can explain it. You can say, “That’s to do with my cultural heritage, and I would like you and me to honour it by saying it how it’s meant to be pronounced.” And if you have that longevity of like a long relationship, you can afford to be honest, I feel, especially when it comes to your name.

And that has happened, I think, through this campaign. A few people have been saying – and I won’t mention any names – but people have then said, “Actually, I’ve been telling people now this is actually how you say my name, but they’ve known me for five years.”

Manisha: Wow.

Elaine: And, yeah, but they have never felt, I suppose maybe confident, or brave enough, to say that. And it does take time. I think it’s a recognition also that it will take time for that other person or other people to say your name in the way that it’s meant to, or the way that you want. But if that genuine effort to say your name correctly in the way that you want them to, that’s priceless.

Manisha: And for people who are listening to this, it sounds like such a simple thing to do, right, to say someone’s name correctly. But I think even just in talking to you, it’s not always that simple. One of the things I love about your campaign is that you’ve actually put a whole lot of stuff together. So if someone was thinking, “Well, what do they actually do at UTS? What are the bits that are the cues so that people pronounce people’s names correctly?” Can you explain some of the things that you’ve done?

Elaine: Yeah, sure. And one of the, I suppose, most practical and visible things is to have something in your email signature. So you can write it out phonetically, your name. And also, you can use like a third party app where you record your name, and then people can press, like, click, click a link. And then you can hear how your name is meant to be pronounced. And that can be an easy way for people to communicate, OK, this is how you say my name, you’ve heard it, now you can keep hearing it. So you can practice it as well. So that’s one of one of the things that we do at UTS.

We also have those resources that I mentioned, which are on the UTS Multicultural Women’s Network website. So we’ve got infographics, we’ve got video resources, we’ve got guides as well, and things to look up, so you can learn more about different techniques, or the stories behind why it’s important. And also hear from people with their experiences about having a name that is deemed difficult at times to say, in dominant Anglo linguistic contexts. So we do have a whole body of, I hope, educational resources that are quite helpful and really practical.

Manisha: And do you see Say My Name as growing and helping to change our current society? Where do you think this sort of sits in the spectrum of diversity inclusion work?

Elaine: I think it’s foundational to any kind of diversity and inclusion work. Because it is something that we all have and that we all carry. So it’s something that we should really be attuned to, which is our names. We recently got a grant, a UTS collaboration scheme grant, with colleagues from Faculty of Engineering and IT, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion. Which is we got some money for it –

Manisha: Congratulations.

Elaine: – so now we’re actually being funded for things that we’re not usually funded for, which, sadly, is the diversity and inclusion space. A lot of this work comes through volunteer work, and in-kind work. But yeah, so we’ve got some money behind it, which means we can do more. We can do more research, we can create more outputs, we can create more resources, and reach more people as well.

So I feel like this work has such a universal impact, especially with settler colonial nation states. But we need to have that legitimacy and funding behind it. Because we can say that it matters, and it does. But if we don’t have the support, then it won’t –

Manisha: Nothing happens.

Elaine: –it will be, it will have impact, but it won’t have support or the drive and the resilience or tenacity to keep going, if we don’t have support.

Manisha: Yeah. And so I have two last questions.

Elaine: Yes, sure.

Manisha: Second last question. So you mentioned you have two children.

Elaine: Yes.

Manisha: Did you think hard about the names you gave them?

Elaine: Yes, we did. Yeah. Yes, I had quite a few names for both of them. But if I can share why we landed on – well, her name is Violet. I first thought, yes, that’s my favourite colour. But I also like words that have different meanings, because I like the fact that Violet is a colour and a flower. And it’s also to do with my husband’s mum. So she passed away before Violet was born. And we wanted to honour her somehow – that’s not her name. But she gave us a pot of violets when we first moved in together, and I thought that would be a nice way to honour your mum.

But that wasn’t the name that we landed on. Well, I thought. But then my husband goes to America, and he calls me up and says, “Hey, babe, I’m going to get a tattoo. Is that OK?” I’m like, “Yeah, sure. Do what you want.” Yeah, he was asking when he had already gotten it done, and he had tattooed ‘Violet’ on his chest.

Manisha: Oh dear.

Elaine: So I’m like, so we have to. I’m like, what if it’s not a Violet? I was still pregnant, so nothing’s for sure. But OK, we have to call her that now, otherwise, you have random violets on your chest. So that’s how.

Manisha: Oh, that’s so funny.

Elaine: Yeah, so I thought hard about it, but then it got etched in ink on his chest. So she’s Violet now.

Manisha: Oh, I love that.

Elaine: And with my second one, similar, similar. It’s kind of – I did actually want all my children to be called Elaine the Second, Elaine the Third, but no that’s –

Manisha: Hang on, hang on, that did not work.

Elaine: No. Supposedly, that’s too involved with your own self. And I did also want my mum’s name as well. But she said she didn’t want to be – she didn’t want any of the children to have her name. She said you want them to have their own identity, and so on.

Manisha: Absolutely.

Elaine: I thought, oh, OK. But we also really wanted to honour my husband’s mum, because she meant a lot to me, and obviously means a lot to my partner. So again, his name, Evan, is in honour of her as well, because we had a beautiful time at Evans Lookout in the Blue Mountains.

Manisha: So I’m assuming that your husband also has Evan tattooed on his body –

Elaine: He does.

Manisha: – and I’m hoping he had it tattooed after your child was born this time?

Elaine: Yes. After the fact, and several months after the fact. So it was Evan. And I did say, “OK, but we’re not going to know the gender of our baby, the sex of our baby until it’s born,” to mitigate against that tactic.

Manisha: To mitigate against that. That’s hilarious. And a final question for you, Elaine, very different to the rest of the questions, but very much the question we try to end on sometimes on With Not For; and this is really thinking about With Not For, right. So it’s the what-if question. So if there was one thing in the world that we could have that was different, because the person who was designing it actually had your insight, or understood why this didn’t work for you, what would you have redesigned, and why?

Elaine: I always go back to curriculum, because that’s my, I suppose that’s my go-to, that’s my wheelhouse. But also, how I see all of this stemming from, so it starts with education. And if we redesign our curriculum from the get-go, not even kindy, but from daycare, from preschool, to have more diverse books by diverse authors – and by diverse I mean, non-Anglo authors – but to have that so embedded in curriculum that we don’t name them as diverse authors, diverse books. They’re just authors and books, right? Because then from a very young age, people, kids will have familiarity with names that might be different from their own cultural background stories that are different from the cultural background. And that’s just how it is.

Manisha: And if I was a young parent today, with a child in my house, do you have a recommendation?

Elaine: Oh, I have so many actually. But the thing is, a lot of the books that I get for my kids, it’s not necessarily, OK, this is a book about diversity and inclusion.

Manisha: No, no, no, this is right. I’m sure the books that you get for your children are entertaining and fun, and also probably quite funny. So I’m sure people would want to know at least two of those books.

Elaine: Yeah, well, there is a book called Where’s Lenny? And that it’s not overtly – and it’s about a little boy called Lenny, who plays hide and seek with his mum and his dad. There’s nothing really to do about cultural diversity or anti-racism, except for the illustrations. Lenny, his parents, one parent is black, one parent is white, so Lenny is mixed race. So those kinds of things that aren’t obvious, but it’s just the story, and what the children see, and what the children experience.

There’s another book called Violet, because my daughter is called Violet. Again, it’s about mixed race parentage and mixed race children. Violet, one of our parents is blue, one of her parents is red. She’s violet. And in school, they think, but your mummy is red, and your daddy is blue. How come you’re a different colour? So it goes through things like that, at their level. Because they’re only seven and four. So it’s at that age.

Yeah, I think also the Baby-Sitters Club is awesome, because it is diverse in so many aspects. You’ve got Claudia Kishi, who’s Japanese American. You’ve also got Stacey, who has type I diabetes. So it’s also about including the different kinds of childhoods and narratives that you don’t usually see. So those are my go-to favourite books.

Manisha: Wonderful. Thank you so much. I hope those books are relevant for people. I know that I’m taking some of those back. I’ve never actually read the Baby-Sitters Club, though I love reading children’s books. So maybe we’ll have an offline book club conversation about the Baby-Sitters Club.

Elaine: Yeah, yes please.

Manisha: And thank you so much for being here with us today, Elaine.

Elaine: Oh, thank you for having me.

Manisha: It’s an absolute pleasure. And thank you everyone for listening and being with us here on With Not For. If you’d like to learn more about how you can make your world more inclusive, contact us on www.cfd.org.au, or see the show notes. Until next time, this is Manisha Amin from the Centre for Inclusive Design.