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name-jess-li
Credit: Julia Schorr

My name is not a hard name. Indeed, my name peaked as the number one baby name in the United States from 1981 to 1997 according to Wikipedia. So why can’t so many professors at Penn get my name right?

I’ve been called Danielle in high school, Anna in one of my college seminars, Jen in another. While these names may seem unrelated to my given name, they have something in common — they’ve all been the names of other Asian students in my classes. 

Perhaps this is a small issue. Perhaps other people may say that educators obviously do not mean to incorrectly name a student, or that they’re trying their best. But when professors get my name confused with that of another Asian student in class halfway through the semester and beyond, this reads as disrespectful and harmful to me, as well as the other student. Especially in small seminars when somewhat of a relationship between professor and student must be cultivated, confusing me with another student is disappointing at best and offensive at worst.

An important observation to make in cases like these is that name confusion or mispronunciation is often racialized. While my professors have rarely confused white students for the same person or mispronounced white names, these situations nearly always seem to happen to students of color. When there is another Asian or Asian-American woman in one of my small seminars, I almost always get called her name several times before a true correction is made. For African-American, Asian, Latinx students and other students of color who have more “complicated” names to professors, their names are often reduced or mispronounced for weeks, without much care given in ensuring their names are said correctly.

This isn’t just me being sensitive. Research has shown that students’ emotional wellbeing, attitude towards their heritage, and even overall worldview can be negatively affected by teachers’ failure to pronounce their names correctly. While this study was conducted for students in K-12 education, these negative feelings can continue to permeate in the college environment. Racial microaggressions are actively harmful and demeaning to students of color, especially in an environment like a classroom which should be a safe space. 

When professors do not take the time to learn something as simple as a name, especially in a racialized context, this spells out a clear message: They do not value these students’ identities. Names that are “confusing” are often names that do not fit into a Western understanding of naming practices: for example, a well-known statistics professor at Penn is known for requiring Asian students to use “Western convention” when writing their names. While this may seem like a small thing to ask, it is a significant reminder that minority students must shift their own perceptions of their names and identities to fit into the mold of the white American classroom.

I’ve often kept quiet when professors get my name wrong. I’ll laugh, say it’s no big deal, and smile at the Asian girl who I got confused with, as if trying to make it into a joke that we can both share. Because maybe it’s not a big deal, not a significant correction to make, not too much labor to tell a professor that they’re wrong, and no, my name is Jess. But the truth is, it does hurt — and it’s something that hurts every time, like my existence is not important enough to ensure that even something as simple as my name is correct.

When one of my professors this semester got my name wrong very late into the semester, I felt a tangible twist of pain in my stomach. As soon as she called me the incorrect name, she quickly backtracked and apologized to me right after class. I appreciated this. But tiny microaggressions like these too often go unnoticed, and every professor at this school should be cognizant of the way they address their students. Because guess what — we don’t all look the same. Learn our names correctly. It’s not that hard. 

JESSICA LI is a College junior from Livingston, N.J., studying English and psychology. Her email address is jesli@sas.upenn.edu.

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