On Sunday night, Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim actor to ever win an Oscar. Unfortunately, he was also the butt of a very bad joke: Host Jimmy Kimmel poked fun at the actor's name twice--once after his historic win, and later again in the ceremony.
Ali won Best Supporting Actor for his role as a paternal drug dealer in Moonlight. In his acceptance speech, he thanked his wife Amatus Sami-Karim, who gave birth to their first child on Feb. 22. Kimmel followed up by asking what he would name his daughter, since his name was Mahershala. "You can't name her Amy," he added.
Kimmel also encouraged the crowd to shout Ali's first name when a group of unsuspecting tourists entered the theater as part of a prank. When interviewing the guests, Kimmel asked a young woman and her husband for their names. She went first, and said her name was "Yulerie." Then her husband introduced himself as Patrick.
"Now that's a name," Kimmel said.
Twitter users quickly commented on the host's jokes, calling it a form of "casual racism," and noting that the act of mocking people's name "other-izes" them.
You receive the greatest honor of your career and immediately after a white man reminds you that you are different. What fuckery.-- roxane gay (@rgay) February 27, 2017
Controversy surrounding names and awards ceremonies is nothing new. (In 2014, John Travolta butchered Idina Menzel's name when introducing her. He later apologized.) But it's important to remember that a person's name is a very sacred form of identity, and to mock or qualify it as "weird' is usually offensive. If you're meeting someone with a difficult-to-pronounce name, there are appropriate and graceful ways to conduct yourself--whether it's in a professional or personal setting.
First off, don't make it into a joke. You're not an original. They've heard it before--and chances are they're tired of it. Second, try to learn the correct pronunciation of their name. If you're meeting someone for the first time, you can ask them to repeat their name. Even if you fumble a bit, they'll appreciate the sincere effort.
If you're reading a name that you haven't heard before, avoid statements like, "I'm not even going to try and pronounce this." Give it a shot, ask if you said it correctly and apologize if necessary. Better yet, if you realize you're going to be reading names you don't know, ask the person ahead of time.
I have some experience with this. Despite the fact that my last name is the same as a popular street in New York City, where I live, more often than not someone pronounces my name incorrectly.
"Kay-nul?" With a 'K'?" strangers will ask.
"No, Canal, like the Panama," is my standard response, knowing that my grandfather, who "Americanized" the family name when he moved here from Cuba, is rolling in his grave.
A mispronunciation is an innocent mistake and one that does not irk me. But if someone doesn't take the time to learn your name after you've corrected them, it can make you feel worthless--when, in reality, that carelessness says more about them than you.
If someone isn't getting my name right, I'll correct them again. If that doesn't work, I'll use my first and last name in a sentence so they can hear the pronunciation. If all else fails, I'll tell them they are saying "Canal" wrong.
Situations like this can be difficult, especially in the workplace. Journalist Tasneem Raja wrote that she feared she would be seen as "difficult" or "demanding" if she corrected a mispronunciation of her name with colleagues.
No matter how challenging a name may look or sound to you, do the work and get it right. And if your colleagues keep referring to themselves by their first and last name, reevaluate things.