What’s In a Name? Kind of a Lot.

This post originally appeared at Uptown Magazine.

I watched every piece of the Oscars Sunday night, from pre-shows to the very end, which means that I was in front of my television for roughly 23 hours.  My viewing experience began in anger and fury, and it ended the very same way.  And thanks to some despicable behavior from the internet, that anger and fury is persisting hours after the show has ended.

It began when I heard Ryan Seacrest say that “they” (meaning, I assume, he and his E! red carpet cohorts) had decided to call Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9-year-old dynamo nominated for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild, “Little Q” instead of her actual name.  Here’s a quick breakdown of the problems with this:

1.  That isn’t her name.
2.  To my knowledge, neither Quvenzhané nor her family OK’d this nickname.
3.  That nickname wasn’t given to her out of love or adoration; it was given out of discomfort around something “other.”

Naming and names are important because they are entwined in our ownership of ourselves and our bodies.  We name things that belong to us.  We name our children.  We name our pets.  We name our cars and our plants and our stuffed animals and even our hair.  The act of naming and/or re-naming something is absolutely about power and control, and this is something that slave owners knew very well–a standard practice in “seasoning” and “breaking” a slave was assigning them Anglo-Saxon names.  This established that those men and women were, without a doubt, property of their purchasers, and completely severed them from the identities they knew.  Further, the names that were assigned to enslaved black men and women were often diminutive versions of common names–Billy instead of William; Donnie instead of Donald.  These were verbal reminders that you were not a whole man or a whole woman, that you were not fully human.  And when that wasn’t enough, they were stripped of those names and called “boy” or “gal,” because acknowledging a person’s self-approved name is to acknowledge the humanity in someone.

This is still the function of naming, and precisely why the insistence on not learning how to pronounce Quvenzhané’s name so crazy-making.

Not saying Quvenzhané’s name is an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to step around and contain her blackness.  Yes, sometimes black people have names that are difficult to pronounce.  There aren’t many people of European descent named Shaniqua or Jamal.  Names are as big a cultural marker as brown skin and kinky hair, and there’s long been backlash against both of those things (see: perms, skin bleaching creams, etc.).   The insistence on not using Quvenzhané’s name is an extension of that “why aren’t you white?” backlash.

 It is easier to be colorblind, to simply turn a blind eye to the differences that have torn this nation apart for centuries than it is to wade through those choppy waters.  And Quvenzhané’s very existence is enough to make the societal majority uncomfortable.  She is talented, successful, beautiful, happy, loved, and adored–all things that many people don’t figure that little black girls with “black” names could, or should, be.  Their answer?  Let’s make her more palatable.  If she insists on not fitting the mold of the ghetto hoodrat associated with women with “urban” names, let’s take her own urban name away from her.

Refusing to learn how to pronounce Quvenzhané’s name says, pointedly, you are not worth the effort.  The problem is not that she has an unpronounceable name, because she doesn’t.  The problem is that white Hollywood, from Ryan Seacrest and his homies to the AP reporter who decided to call her “Annie” rather than her real name, doesn’t deem her as important as, say, Renee Zellweger, or Zach Galifianakis, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, all of whom have names that are difficult to pronounce–but they manage.  The message sent is this:  you, young, black, female child, are not worth the time and energy it will take me to learn to spell and pronounce your name. You will be who and what I want you to be; you be be who and what makes me more comfortable.  I will allow you to exist and acknowledge that existence, but only on my terms.

And as if calling her “Little Q” wasn’t enough, The Onion took it to an entirely unnecessary level by calling her one of the most deplorable, abhorrent words there are:  “c-nt.”

The outrage was swift, and rightfully so, but so was the defense. Instantaneously, Twitter became flooded with tweets explaining the function of satire (as if those who were upset didn’t already know) and protecting The Onion’s tweet as a simple joke.

The underlying message there? If we package it the right way, we can still call you whatever we want, whenever we want.

Not all of us have the space or luxury to see this kind of attack as “just a joke,” and make no mistake, this was absolutely an attack.  On the surface, it was a bit of poorly planned satire that missed its mark by a million yards.  Quvenzhané was a prop in, not the subject of, a very tasteless joke.  As a writer and humorist, I understand that.  Sure, it was “just a joke,” but it was a joke constructed of venom that black women have had to withstand since the beginning of our time on American soil.  Beneath that joke is a culture that has made the lampooning and mistreatment of black women a perfectly acceptable thing, and this is where the attack lies: in the residue of an era that permitted the systemic rape and murder of black women even as the protection of the cultural purity of white women was viciously protected, claiming the lives of countless innocent black men in the process. The attack lies in the space that allowed anyone to ever think that a statement like this would ever be accepted, and in the realization that a lot of people not only accepted, but defended it. The attack is that we are always attacked.

Black women are routinely stripped of control of ourselves and our bodies.  We are “Little Q” on the red carpet.  We are “c-nts” on the internet.  We are “baby/honey/sugar/shorty with the fat ass” on the street as we go about our lives, minding our own business.  And when we open our mouths to speak against it all when it seems no one else will, we are charged to defend our defense of ourselves.

That Quvenzhané’s skin and gender are seen as permission to treat or call her however they wish is a jagged pill to swallow.  Let’s not get it twisted: calling Quvenzhané Wallis a “c-nt” is deplorable, but ignoring what she wants to be called and giving her some cutesy little nickname because you can’t be bothered to learn her name is every  bit as bad.

“Give your daughters difficult names,” Warsan Shire wrote. “Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name makes you want to tell me the truth. My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right … Give your children difficult names, so the world may learn how to unfurl its tongue in the direction of our stolen languages.”

Beware of anyone who looks at you and says “I am going to call you what I want to call you in spite of what you call yourself;” they mean you no good, regardless of how big they smile at you when they say it.

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Brokey McPoverty, aka Tracy Clayton, is a writer and humorist from Louisville, KY. You can find her writing at Uptown Magazine, ranting about hair at Natural Hair Problems, teaching the babies what The Man doesn’t want you to know at Little Known Black History Facts, and working endlessly to remind you that your favorite song probably sucks at Splackavellie Central. Oh, yeah. And on Twitter.

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146 comments to What’s In a Name? Kind of a Lot.

  • WOW. Yes. MY NAME IS MUKISA NAMAKULA KIBAYA AND I APPROVE OF THIS MESSAGE! *stops shouting & steps off soapbox*

  • Well that certainly takes care of that! Thank you!

  • Nicole

    Thanks for writing this and I hope it make it’s way to Ryan Seacrest and the E! team. Quvenzhané I think is a beautiful name and I really hope her parents take a stand against ppl calling her by any thing other than that.

  • Kim

    Thank you for putting into words what I have not been able to! I often work with “off-shore resources” on my job, and oftentimes my US co-workers will give them American nicknames, without event attempting to pronounce their real names. That really bothered me, butI could not adequately articulate why. I thought, “how arrogant of you to give give a grown man a new name”. Although the off-shore resources did not complain about their randomly-assigned nicknames (to us anyway), I never used the nicknames. I would always say to them….”I may butcher your name, but I will make every attempt to call you what your mama and daddy wanted you to be called”. They often laughed at my feeble attempts to pronounce their names, but many of them contacted me privately and thanked me for attempting. As we continue to become a “global society”, we will have to accept that everyone is not named Jack, John, Mary, or Sally.

    • Loren MacGregor

      Like Kim, my co-workers are primarily from another country and multiple cultures, and the variety of names (and the reasons and history behind those names, in many cases) are myriad and puzzling — but that’s MY issue, and it is important to me to pronounce the name correctly when I am speaking to them, or to spell it correctly when I write. (My own name is relatively easy to spell and to pronounce, if you are from an English-based country, and still many people get it wrong!) Our names are what identify us. To me, a name is something of importance, something of power, and something to be used correctly. I’ve had people tell me that I am the only English/American person they’ve met who makes the effort, and if that’s true, I find it appalling. For each person with an “ethnic” name (What’s that mean? ALL names are “ethnic”!) there is a personal history and a societal history that is to me something fascinating, a journey I cannot wait to take. Yes, Kim, we ARE in a global society, and that’s a good thing.

  • linkweedy

    Your point is good, but I think you mis-assign the intention. Quvenzhané is for many people an incredibly difficult name to pronounce. I speak from experience here – I was going to an oscars party and I wanted to pretend that I knew what I was talking about when it came to movies, so I looked up how to pronounce her name. I read it phonetically, and I even watched a cute little video where she tells a cameraman how to pronounce it. And yet as I’m writing this, I’m still not sure if I could say it correctly. It’s a set of sounds that don’t easily roll off the average American tongue, and I think reluctance to say her name stems more from embarrassment than anything else.

    • Meh.

      It’s a set of sounds that don’t easily roll off the average American tongue, and I think reluctance to say her name stems more from embarrassment than anything else.

      Sort of depends on what we mean by “average American,” don’t it?

      Also, broadcast journalists usually have pronunciation guides for tricky names, if only so that all the on-air folks say the same name the same way. Is it too much to ask a celebrity reporter to know how to say the names of the celebrities he’s interviewing? Wouldn’t you think someone who decided to call Francois Hollande “Frankie” because it was “easier” was being unprofessional?

    • VC

      Quvenzhané actually *isn’t* an exceptionally difficult name, despite your insistence that it is. And even if it were, that doesn’t excuse folks from refusing altogether to attempt to say it.

    • you can circumvent that fear of embarrassment by doing a little work to figure out how to pronounce her name, though. and as GD touched on, as a reporter it is literally your job to learn to pronounce the names that you’re tasked to say on air. literally. like, you get paid for it.

  • havilland

    thank you so much for this post! thank you. thank you. thank you!

  • Margie

    Quvenzhane’s name is so beautiful that it overshadows her last name Wallis. This young lady has earned the respect and the right for ppl to make the effort to pronounce her name correctly… especially those in the industry. I think her name sounds like it belongs to someone of great importance… she will be known simply as Quvenzhane!!!

  • Anthony Cornicello

    While some may complain that Quvenzhané has a difficult name to pronounce, let us not forget who was demolishing her name. Ryan Seacrest’s sole job is to announce celebrities as they arrive. Given that role, and the fact that the guest list is not exactly secretive (to him), wouldn’t it have been wise to take the extra few minutes, at some point during the last month, to figure out how to correctly pronounce the name. It’s not like he couldn’t have contacted someone who would know how to properly say it. I’m sure he was getting paid for the gig.

    Either he thought that his audience wouldn’t have noticed or cared, or that he just didn’t care.

  • As someone who has taught kids in Brooklyn with names from all over the globe (and many unique ones), I can only hope that people bearing those names give others the benefit of the doubt when we struggle to say them correctly. It’s not always malice; sometimes we guess wrong (or ask, and still stumble), or just don’t have very nimble tongues. I wonder if the actress Siobhan McKenna attributes what must certainly be a lifetime of name-mangling to anti-Irish prejudice. My Irish-American mother would rant at the ignorance of those who’d say “see-obe-han” instead of “Sheh-vawn” (or “See-ar-ah” for Ciara, instead of “Keerah”)…while I would wonder why, in a world full of challenges, anyone would bestow on their American kid a “beautiful Irish name” that was guaranteed to keep you busy explaining its pronunciation all your life. I always suspected it was a deep-seated or unconscious poke at the Brits (those infamous name-manglers and anglicizers); every time your name gets mispronounced, you get to confirm the stupidity and arrogance of the oppressor. Part of me longed to be named Fionnula or Eithne, but on balance I’m glad she stuck with the see-and-say Brenda. (Although I’ve had people respond, “Linda?” so even that’s not 100% guaranteed.) One thing is certain: That young lady’s talent and beauty have put her name up in lights, and the ignorant can just deal with it!

    • there wasn’t a sincere attempt to try (and stumble) to say her name. they just opted to give her another.

      • No they didn’t give her another name, they used a very reasonable shorthand. Brenna point is valid – if you are going to give your child a name that is difficult for people to say, then you should expect to cut them some slack at least, not use it as a basis to go on a diatribe.

        • julian

          I find it wonderfully appropriate that you said Brenna instead of Brenda.

          Names aren’t difficult unless you’re looking to capture all the nuances of their original language. Really no more difficult than kindergarten, arigato goziamasu or McDonald. Especially when your first tongue is english and you already have almost every sound used in other languages.

          I’ve honestly never understood why people deliberately butcher the names of others and laugh about it. To me it seems disrespectful. :/

        • i have tons of slack for people who TRY. those who don’t make the effort don’t deserve any, at all.

        • She’s famous, though.

          This isn’t like “a child in my class whose name I’ve never seen before.” This is like “Sinead O’Connor,” or “Javier Bardem,” or “Steve Buscemi.” Or “Rayfe Fynze.”

          At this point, you have no excuse for reading Quvenzhané and going “Kuhvovoowhuh? I am so confused! What is this strange blend of vowels and consonants I see before me? Can’t…pronounce…send…help….”

          She was nominated for an Oscar. Her name is officially not mysterious anymore.

          And like everyone is saying, unless there’s a tradition of giving Oscar nominees nicknames like “Barbar,” and “Steve-O,” unless we’re all just going to call him “Ralph” already, this isn’t easy shorthand so much as singling out. And there’s no reason for that that doesn’t point to racism.

  • I was just having this conversation with a friend of mine and your expert prose will save the trouble of a FB rant or worse on my own blog so i’m gonna repost and share your blog on every site I can find and i’m sending it out as an email so that black people can be mindful to defend this baby as she passes from obscurity to “fame” – so that she travels safely and that the mainstream media knows that they cannot mess with OUR baby girl. She made us proud, the least we can do is defend her in the media…your blog goes a long way in that direction for all of us

  • Tarien

    Although I do not agree with calling Quvenzhané ‘Little Q’, and that you are totally justified in being angry… I fail to see how this situation is any different to the ridiculous nicknames given to other celebrities by the media: J’law, Brangelina, Xtina, Riri, Zeller, LiLo… The list goes on. I think the practice is a symptom of a sick and lazy media used to objectifying people, and not so much an expression of a racist past, or an attempt to other.

    • The difference is that they never call them that to their face. They always use their full name when they’re talking to them.
      Also Brangelina is not a nickname givent to a person, it’s a nickname used for a couple so that doesn’t exactly help your argument since it’s irrelevant. And if I’m not mistaken Xtina and Riri are nicknames that they used themselves.

  • vickie

    Thank you. As I read this my mind flew back to the ‘whipping scene’ in Roots when Kunta Kinte is ‘seasoned’ into ‘accepting’ his new name; and my tears came.

    • First of all, ALL WORDS ARE MADE UP. Words are not naturally occurring things like sunlight or the growth of trees. Thus, the very hateful argument that Quvenzhané’s name is “made up” ignores the fact that all names are made up, as is language. It’s primarily a human convention (though other species do “communicate” with each other). Thus, anyone making this argument is a bigot masquerading as a biologist masquerading as a linguist. The reality is, EVERYTHING that Brokey McPoverty addressed is accurate. People seek to minimize and erase this child, and it has everything to do with the intersection of both race and gender here.

      As she wrote: “She is talented, successful, beautiful, happy, loved, and adored–all things that many people don’t figure that little black girls with “black” names could, or should, be. Their answer? Let’s make her more palatable. If she insists on not fitting the mold of the ghetto hoodrat associated with women with ‘urban’ names, let’s take her own urban name away from her.” REALITY.

      The fact that people want the right to NOT call her by her name AND to call her a “c-nt” reveals the specific anti-Black woman/girl misogyny in this society. The issue is one of White supremacy; whether it is Whites who claim to be “educated” refusing to pronounce her name or these same types of Whites denying people employment if their name is not one that makes Whites “comfortable,” the issue is the same. It remains unacceptable. Further, certainly there are people of colour with internalized White supremacist thought who also sanction abuse and disrespect of other people of colour who do not have names that conform to White standards of acceptability. This is also unacceptable.

      Thanks for this great piece. Important read.

      • Kate

        Why specifically anti-black misogyny? It wouldn’t take very much effort to find examples of tasteless jokes about white actresses, young women/girls especially, because of how debased Hollywood’s attitudes about sex and youth are. It has been almost as upsetting to see the Onion’s comment treated as a racial issue as the original comment was, because it is ALL of our children that have to grow up in a world that is eager to diminish them to sexual objects – and all of us have to combat the modern desire to reduce every person and interaction to dynamics of ‘usefulness’ and power.

        The name thing was dumb because they didn’t even try and it is an emcee’s job to be prepared. That said, my assumption was that the messing around with her name was again a matter of lack of equal respect and consideration for children, not specifically (in this particular case) a racial issue. My son has a difficult name and is often ‘assigned’ nicknames – mostly this doesn’t bother me, but it would if it were his teacher (who is in daily interaction with him) and it definitely does bother me that one of his aunts won’t even try to pronounce his (french) name AND refuses to use the very simple nickname he prefers, substituting a nickname of her own instead. I feel somehow that I am being irrational to be bothered because I usually think of unique nicknames as a signifier of affection and creativity, but in this case it felt like a slam on the name we chose. So I do ‘get’ what an emotional issue naming is!

        • Kate, the essay specifically explains how this targets Black women/girls, specifically. No one is suggesting that White women do not deal with sexism as well. However, there are specific instances, such as this one, where race in addition to gender are factors as well. Again, she explained this in the post. For clarity, you can also read posts on this by Black women at Bitch Magazine, Clutch, tressiemc, and Crunk Feminist Collective. Also research intersectionality–start with Sojourner Truth, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Kimberlé Crenshaw.

  • If you’re old enough, you’ll remember all the talented and, sometimes, beautiful Jewish actors whose names were changed, so as not to offend a largely Christian audience. European actors also usually got ‘pronounceable’ names.

    • Lee

      Yes, and? The fact that people in the past have had their names changed in order to make rich white folks more comfortable does not mean that we can’t do better than that NOW.

    • while true, this ignores the issue of agency. voluntarily changing your name, though the reasons behind doing so are sucky and unfortunate, is different from having someone else take your name and give you another one.

  • cegm

    Perhaps I sound naive, but do you think that Quvenzhané was called “Miss Q” because she’s a cute young girl with lots of talent & sass, just like so many adults I know will call young girls “Miss Thing” or such? While I’m by no means excusing the rudeness of not using her first name correctly and I do agree with the point that Francois certainly shouldn’t be called Frankie and that every attempt should have been made to pronounce her name (which is their job, as reporters), I’m just wondering if it wasn’t just an ill-done attempt at being cute with her due to her age versus trying to put her down as an African-American…? And, I really don’t see the connection between what The Onion wrote (which was seriously horrible!) and “Miss Q”; I think that it was just a really bad coincidence that both happened at the same time. I don’t think that Ryan Seacrest & The Onion were in cahoots to attack Quvenzhané. If anything, I just think it shows how bad manners seem to have taken precedence (as Mr Seacrest wouldn’t have said the same were Quvenzhané ten years older) and how tasteless our jokes have become as a society (what happened to intelligent humor?).

    And…as an aside, my daughter has a difficult, old-fashioned name that comes from her Hispanic heritage (as mentioned earlier, this occurs in all languages/cultures/heritages). I didn’t think it was difficult until I heard others mangling it. I love her name & I want her to be proud of it. But you’re right: at least people will try to pronounce my daughter’s name, versus dismissing it.

  • CG

    Thank you for this post Ms. Clayton. It was well said. The discourse about respect for other’s culture, that person and the historical context of it all needs to be said much more often with unyielding clarity as you have done here. This article was a breath of fresh air to read first thing in the morning. In addition I am still reeling from the open public disrespect of a child (Quvenzhané) by numerous people in the industry recently particularly the Oscars. Racism no matter how subtle is not a closed subject in my book. To subject a child to such bitter disregard, disrespect when I have watched other child actors be received with open arms really has infuriated me. I believe the Onion was disgusting and noticed that she presents herself with humor and aplomb. It seems the writer of that tweet thought it would be a good idea to use satire in order to attack a child for her self-assurance while trying to disguise the attack as “just satire”. An indirect way to attack her self esteem publicly by the article and by her name. A way to try to obliterate the significance of her performance and her personality which is clearly a string positive one into oblivion How disgusting. Thank you for your article.

  • Janet Thompson

    That guy was hired and paid money to read off people’s names??? I have some names for him!

  • Even I agree with you, and I’m not a woman or African American. That was shabby treatment of a lovely young woman, and it resonates in just the ways you say. Bravo.

  • RM-S

    This disdain for the differently-named cuts both ways. I have an Indian first name and a hyphenated last name; the attitude I get from (specifically) African-American women is rather amazing. As soon as I say “the last name is hyphenated” the hostility begins, especially when (inevitably) asking me to spell both segments out.

    We all hate the Other, and never make the mistake of thinking one’s own community is the most profoundly othered.

    • uh, what? black people are mean to you because your name is hyphenated?

      Is there something missing from this story?

    • RM-S

      I’m saying that people in various communities are often less than charitable to names they define as Other. Recall that the original post was basically saying “Whites hate difficult names they associate as being from brown people”; I’m suggesting that to a certain subculture within the AA community, overt feminism or whatever they read into dual-hyphenation is alienating, and they respond to that sense of Other just as gracelessly. Naturally, this is a generalisation, but isn’t the above article just an example of similarly secundum quid reasoning?

      • Do you see how sloppy this argument is?

        Where does Tracy argue that some black people don’t do that? How does your assertion counter anything she said, unless you’re arguing that she, as a black woman, is somehow responsible for every idiotic thought harbored by someone in some black world that she might not even inhabit?

        troll better, dude.

      • That’s an unfortunate experience RM-S. I work in tech in California and thus many of my co-workers are Indian. I also went to high school in Houston where there is a large Indian and Pakistani community. So, I’ve been exposed to many Indian names and try to make it a point to pronounce them properly, especially since non-black people are often mispronouncing my own name. Bottom line is, we should be respectful of other cultures. It doesn’t really take that much to try to learn to properly pronounce someone’s name.

  • 1. That isn’t her name.

    No shit – it’s a nickname.

    2. To my knowledge, neither Quvenzhané nor her family OK’d this nickname.

    So what. That isn’t how nicknames work. Exactly when did Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie sign off on Brangelina?

    3. That nickname wasn’t given to her out of love or adoration; it was given out of discomfort around something “other.”

    You can make all the presumptions in the world but you don’t know that.

  • I agree with you 100%, except for how the c-word was intended. The Onion did not call her that; I saw it as them juxtaposing Quvenzhane’s innocence and the c-word to illustrate Hollywood’s inherent cattiness and backstabbing ways. Ryan Seacrest and that AP reporter can go straight to hell.

    • Quelqu'un

      Why should this little girl have to be a stand in for the issues the cattiness of Hollywood? She shouldn’t have been involved in that kind of satire with that kind of language, especially considering the negative history that black females already have with Hollywood and the media.

    • i know how and why the word was used. i know that it was not aimed AT HER. it’s still very offensive for a lot of reasons.

  • April

    Thanks for this. Agreed 100%.

  • delux

    At some point, Brokey, we need to talk about this thing where Black women in particular are supposed to continually take care of everyone else’s needs at all times.

  • Efegholo Egbeighu

    I totally disagree with the premise of this article. Quvenzhané is a bullshit, made-up name, which has no actual meaning. It would be one thing if this girl was named “Efegholo”, which is an actual names that originates from an actual culture and language, and has real meaning.
    Quvenzhané is something some under-educated black woman came up with to make her child seem unique. The name is unpronounceable, and is actually holding her child back. If you ever saw Freakonomics you will recall their bit on the importance of names. http://www.freakonomics.com/books/freakonomics/chapter-excerpts/chapter-6/
    A name like Quvenzhané does not indicate black culture, it only indicates that the girl’s mom is uneducated. I wish poor black people would stop sacrificing their children for uniqueness. If they want a unique, un-European name for their child, they should attempt cursory research and find an African name from one of the thousand cultural groups/ hundred language groups from the continent of Africa. Furthermore it is disruptive to me, an actual culturally African-American, with a real African name!

    • Way to go, Effeegaholoo Egbeggy or something! I am now feeling like, having done my part for Mr. Obama and his call to “conversation,” I should take my white polite self out of here because I just don’t feel right about witnessing the sight of the slugfest about to erupt among you ladies (or are you a gent? “o” is a male ending in Spanish, don’t know about Nigerian, which is my guess). (Correcting my faux-ignorant pose, I’ll guess “Aye-fey-GO-lo Eg-BAY-gu,” how’d I do? I’m a journalist and I live in NYC and I take pride in guessing right…) Before I tiptoe away from this fascinating discussion out of sheer classy refusal to eavesdrop on an intra-sister bloodbath, I will share the Irish secret for surviving merciless cultural oppression: Keep one hell of a sense of humor about yourselves! xox and thanks to our blogger for initiating a fascinating and (mostly civil) discussion.

    • Janet Thompson

      It’s my understanding that Quvenzhane’s name is made up of a combination of her parents’ first names, and then the “zhane” part means “sprite” in Swahili. I have also read that Quvenzhane’s mother is a teacher, so how “uneducated” can she be? Are you mixing up the characters in the film with the actress and her real family? And what’s with all the venom?

      Also, about Hollywood’s disrespect for this wonderful little girl, I think we have to recognize that “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is about as un-Hollywood and anti-Hollywood as any film could possibly be, and it’s brilliant, and all the phonies in Hollywood know it and must have been terrified by this film and the people who made it and by making it put those Hollywood phonies all to shame. So the reaction is to heap ill-disguised contempt on Quvenzhane and all associated with “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and on the film itself. And the whole world knows that is one great film.

      And yes, I feel certain that racism is behind a large part of the ugly behavior, but there are also other shameful human emotions at work here.

      Finally, to Efegholo, if you come from some advanced culture, why do you use words like “bullshit”?

    • you are in luck! i’ve got just a bit of troll food left for you.

      firstly, a name has meaning when you give it meaning. you do not get to decide what someone else’s name means. as Janet pointed out, there’s a story there. just because you don’t know the story behind her name, it doesn’t mean that there ISNT one. whether or not you see or know the meaning behind it does not negate the fact that there is meaning there. someone who doesn’t know the origin of “Egegholo” & doesn’t care to know it may very well take the same approach. i don’t know what it means, so it’s a bullshit made up name. if that’s too complex a thought for you to grasp, then no wonder this piece didn’t make sense to you.

      secondly, her name IS NOT UNPRONOUNCEABLE, because there are people on this earth who can say it just fine. that that fact missed you completely is very telling, and it is no wonder that this piece didn’t ‘make sense to you.

      thirdly, the assumption that her mother, or any mother that names her child a ‘black’ name is an poor, uneducated black woman is really fucking racist, and it’s no wonder that this piece didn’t make sense to you.

      fourthly, freakonomics was pretty fucking racist too, and if that’s where the influence on your thoughts on this matter come from, it’s no wonder this piece didn’t make sense to you.

      fifthly, the fact that you think a “culturally african-american” is a thing and something you pride yourself in being is completely ridiculous and it’s no wonder that this piece flew completely over your head.

      • Whoa, whoa, Brokey. I was with you until “fifthly.” It is not possible to be “culturally african-american”? I’m pretty sure there is such a thing as african-american culture, in fact I’m pretty sure I can detect the contours of it in your sense of humor (and in the name of the talented young actress you are passionately defending).

    • This child was nominated for an OSCAR before her age hit double digits. She was plucked from relative obscurity to play the role of Hushpuppie in a beautiful film (which she rocked *looks to aforementioned Oscar). She has appeared on a number of prominent magazine covers and charms everyone who interviews her. Hollywood’s elite rush to get into pics with her and speak highly of her professionalism at her age.

      Tell me again how her name is holding her back? I’ll wait.

      • Efegholo’s idiotic comment also assumes that people care about the derivation of her/his hard-to-pronounce name enough to determine whether it’s “real” or “fake.”

  • Time for me to admit: I actually DON’T know how to pronounce the young lady’s name. My guess would be “kuh-vahn-shuh-NAY,” but it would be just that, a guess. The accent over the ‘e’ makes me think that “ven” would be French-like “vahn” instead “venn”, and the lack of a vowel after Q makes me uncertain whether it’s “Kuh” or “K” (consonant only, as if followed by an apostrophe). I didn’t hear her name said at the Oscars because the host was such a tasteless imbecile that we watched much of it on “mute.”

  • Marsey

    What difference does it make if the name was made up or not. The point is that our names are a part of who we are and people should have the respect to use them. I have a very ordinary name,but I don’t like being called by something other than my given name unless it is by my own choice.

  • S.

    Excellent. Thank you so much. I am not a black woman, but I am a Muslim woman with what whites would call a “funny name” and the arrogance displayed by those unwilling to even try pronouncing my name is a special form of disrespect those of us part of any minority continue to experience.

  • Lee

    Point 1: So it’s a “difficult” name. It was his JOB to learn how to pronounce it, and (as noted) he had plenty of lead time in which to do so.

    Point 2: Assuming for the sake of argument that he was too lazy/patronizing/racist/sexist (take your pick, any or all) to get off his arse and DO HIS JOB, why couldn’t he have just called her “Miss Wallis”? Oh, right, because that would have been respectful.

    Point 3: Thank you for explicitly calling out the connection to slaves being given new names. I’ve run into the “oh, he’s from India and no one can pronounce his name, so we just call him Bill” thing before, and had not fully articulated why that bothered me so much. It’s different if the person in question says, “Call me Bill” — but having your boss or co-workers just change your name for you is RUDE and disrespectful.

    Point 4: There are in fact people who routinely change people’s names even when those names are “normal” — for example, insisting on calling someone “Bob” rather than “Robert”, or “Debbie” instead of “Debra”. This does not make what Seacrest did okay. It just means that those people are lazy, disrespectful assholes TOO. How hard is it to call people what they want to be called?

  • jaiqueze

    It absolutely is the reporters job to know the names of the nominees and to know what film they’ve been nominated for (I’ve seen that happen as well). That being said there may have been another issue at work here. Quvenzhane has just been cast as Annie and that was also discussed on the red carpet. A reporter asked her and she confirmed that she would be playing Annie. Could that have played a part in the reporter’s decision to “just call her Annie”?

  • Christine Analise Rafaela Revelo-Lee

    Love this article. As a Latina I find myself going through this all the time. My name is a long mirror of my multicultural heritage, and it is even hyphenated. Though sometimes I hear the argument that “if they don’t care about how their name is pronounced, we shouldn’t either,” I don’t think we should use this to get away from the bigger issue. If you don’t know how to pronounce something, ASK at the very least! There is nothing more frustrating that listening to someone arrogantly try to weasel around the syllables that make you who you are. Can we PLEASE move forward from “Toby”?!

    (I would love to know how to pronounce Quevenzhané’s name correctly, btw.)

  • Jenn

    Wonderful point and sadly so true. I never really gave how people shorten names until this and the implications. My name is Jenneth. It’s not a hard name by any stretch. It’s pronounced just how it’s spelled. However, NO ONE get’s it right the first time, unless they put some effort into it. People will call me (and yes after reading my name) Jeannette, Jane, Janet, Jennifer (my personal irritant), Janelle, Janice (I was once told to pronounce my name properly and if I had a lisp maybe I should try giving a nickname..this was when I worked as a banker). So, I know what it’s like when people screw up your name. It’s incredibly insulting in a formal setting when people do not try pronounce your name.It’s hurtful and shows a lack of respect. The Oscars are a formal event and all reporters should have attempted to properly pronounce her name before the show. Quvenzhane deserved that respect. I wonder if this would have happened had she been a blonde hair, blue eyed white girl. I doubt it. I had no idea of the other names this CHILD had been called. How horrible are people? Why would you call anyone let alone a child that word! It’s disgusting. People of all colours, backgrounds and languages seem to F*ck up my name. I’m so used to it that I barely notice. I hate when people call me a nickname though when they are not known to me. My friends and family…ok…small children fine…strangers? No make the effort.

  • marilynne

    thank you for expressing it so clearly. eastern european names and spellings are difficult to pronounce and “they” take steps to ensure correct pronunciation. The underlying message is as you state. It was an insult.

  • Kathryn

    Appreciate this. I have to say, though, that I feel that the issue is more about the media and our culture in general feeling that it is ok to rename or nickname women, not just women of color. J Lo, J Law, K Stew. I have hated all my life that even if I introduce myself as Kathryn it is shortened to Kathy in the next breath, and often by men. Access Hollywood was all over giving itself praise for pronouncing the Hawaiian/Samoan names of the Notre Dame football scandal guys. That same respect is often lacking when it comes to women.

  • Sharon

    It’s not a difficult name. I just googled it – it took me two seconds to find the link where she pronounces it on you tube and another two seconds to repeat. It is a name that has four syllables. The difference between “Quvenzhané” and “Marie-Louise” or “Carolina” or “Katharina” is…I had never heard it before I heard of this actress. But there was once a time when I first heard: “Atalanta”, “Wamilika”, “Angelina”, “Juliana” and “Christiana” too. I learnt those pretty fast. Those are important names in my life.

    Perhaps (in my limited horizon) Quvenzhané is an unusual name. But it is not difficult.

    And if your job is to pronounce names – learn it. Or get a new job.

  • Alex

    I completely agree with this article, and the points about it being Ryan Seacrest’s job to learn to pronounce names are excellent; it makes the slight even more apparent. I thought many of Seth MacFarlane’s jokes were ridiculously racist and sexist, and the surrounding media (red-carpet BS and The Onion alike) only reinforced a lot of the evening’s “humor.” I would say, however, that there is a problem with an article in which the media is rightfully urged to take “the time and energy… to spell and pronounce” a name correctly in that both Renée Zellweger’s and Zach Galifianakis’ surnames have been misspelled here. Or does that “error” carry some meaning?

    • i added an extra ‘g’ to ‘Zellweger’ and omitted an ‘i’ in ‘Galifianakis.’ this was after googling to see how the names were spelled; i looked at the spellings of their names and typed them by hand, rather than copy and pasting them, which would have been the fool proof way to ensure proper spelling. my mistake wasn’t for lack of effort; sometimes you try and still, mistakes are made.

      and that’s fine. there is no harm or malice in making a mistake, especially if you correct it, as i just did (thank you for pointing that out, by the way). and thanks to this, i know for sure how to spell their names and won’t

      but of course, to be clear–this post isnt about people who try to pronounce her name and get it wrong. mistakes are okay if you correct them. mispronouncing a name is a step toward pronouncing it correctly. it’s about people who don’t even bother. i bothered and still screwed it up, but then i fixed it and will know better going forward. if the same thing happened with Quvenzhane’s name, it’d be freaking awesome.

      • Alex

        Your point is well taken. I’m totally cool with mistakes if one bothers. I’m a teacher, hence being a stickler for spelling, but also hence being willing to accept mistakes as well — how else do we learn?

  • Another disturbing thing was the comment from the academy voter who said they would would never vote for someone whose name they could not pronounce.

  • cwalter

    As a girl with a very different first name that used to be a French last name I can relate to this issue. And I am not disputing the argument made here, but prior to the Oscars she did go on an early morning talk show (either Live with Kelly and Michael or Today) and state that her friends call her Q. Ryan Seacrest bugs the heck out of me but maybe he was referencing that interview.

  • Randy

    …and outside in the real world, where 1 in 4 children lives in poverty and black men are being shoveled into the prison industrial complex, this cosmetic issue is fucking ridiculous.

  • Kay Jaynes

    This is a very relevant take on the whole name game thing..nick names are what our closest friends and family call us…..your name is what you have for your life…..it belongs to you exclusively, and NO ONE should do anything with it without your permission……..”her friends call her Q,” but everyone else should address her as Miss until she grants them permission to address her a something other than her rightful name.
    Isn’t that how it’s done?
    When we were kids involved in name calling fights, and complained about it afterwards, my Dad used to say “is that your name? the name your mother and I named you?” I would say no, and he would reply, “Then, fuck them…….” Kinda puts that to rest don’t it?

  • Wendy

    Yet, the media has no problem pronouncing Saoirse Ronan name. The pronunciation is so far from the spelling of her name.

  • I meet people everyday whose names I’m not sure how to pronounce; it’s very simple to ask for guidance, and it’s the most basic form of respect between two people. Magnify that times a zillion for those on a public platform. Welcome to the world, Ryan Seacrest, et al. It’s a big, beautiful place.

    So many good posts here, thanks (mostly) all. And thanks for your article, Ms. Clayton.

  • Dianne C

    Oh please, I love that little girl but I am having a heck of a time pronouncing her name, not to mention spelliing it. To imply something sinister regarding my stupidity is just plain, at the risk of being redundant, stupid. On the other hand I would have no problem pronouncing the c word, but would never degrade myself or anyone else by repeating it. The Onion tweeter was just plain evil.

  • Interesting that the author does not offer any quidance in pronouncing this name. I heard the pronunciation on the radio, however I can’t begin to get it correct from the spelling alone. A phonetic version would be very helpful in assisting people to pronounce this young lady’s name correctly.

    • sure. but, googling a phonetic version is also exceedingly possible and easy. it’s all about the effort you’re prepared to make, which kind of goes back to my point. she’s all over the internet telling people how to pronounce her name; it isn’t difficult to find and learn.

  • Jean

    Didn’t this same type of shit happen to Macaulay Culkin?

    • Kate

      I thought the same thing – this is all part and parcel of how child actors are treated in Hollywood. (Which is to say, with thinly veiled malice because they take spotlight that adult actors feel they have ‘earned’ by living and working longer).

  • Thank you for asking Mr. Sparks. I am a Black woman and I have no idea how to pronounce it but as I read through the comments, I did think…I wish someone would offer a phonetic spelling. My name is simply Krystal and I am called Christine, Krys (which I don’t actually mind), sexy or baby (which I mind a LOT gentlemen!), hun, and a host of less civil names by friends and strangers alike. Civility is waning in our society.

    I can appreciate the cultural conversation surrounding the history of oppression and marginalization with the shortening or obliteration of cultural names; I can appreciate the socio-political power dynamics around today’s media and the “other”. What I can’t appreciate is disrespect for the well articulated perspectives of others that may differ from our own. There is a way to be civil and it starts with addressing others with respect.

    The young lady in question was BRILLIANT. I have little time for television, radio, and the news primarily because I am a full-time student but I made time to watch this innovative and beautiful work. As her career builds or as this conversation continues, I hope to hear more from her in the future.

    I would welcome a phonetic spelling of her name but am I going to invest further time to this conversation…probably not. Herein lies the root of the problem; civility is waning and we are often lazy. Today, the pronunciation of her name is more or less only and element of this conversation. That she is misnamed is the point here. That misnaming is harmful and disrespect inherent is the point. I have what I feel I need and now I will go back to reading for my class. I am just a student trolling during a break. Ryan Seacrest and professional media persons are not; they HAVE an obligation to do this research.

  • Tracy,

    Already gave you brief feedback on this over the Twitters. But I thought I’d chuck in my $.02 here as well.

    First, when I was first reading about this, and the backlash began in earnest, I remember thinking, “Why the hell is this even an issue?” On the surface, I didn’t quite “get” it. I do now. And the point others have made here is quite correct: Ryan Seacrest IS a representative of the media for this event. Therefore, it is his JOB to do appropriate research and exercise due diligence BEFORE the time comes. To just go to calling Quvenzhane Wallis “Little Q” without even showing an effort to pronounce her given name. And barring that, he could have at least ASKED her either A: The correct pronunciation of her name, or B: Permission to truncate it as he did. The real offense here is journalistic laziness.

    Second, as you can see from my nick here, my name is Tracy. I am also a male. As most may know, my name can mostly be considered feminine in this day and age. Because of this, people seem to assume that I don’t like being called by my given name. This is far from the truth. My name carries with it deep ancestral heritage and familial pride (which I won’t go into). As a result, I’m PROUD of this name. So even though I am polite about it to others, it does in fact offend me when others call me “Terry” or “Trace” or god forbid, “Tray” without either tacit or explicit permission to do so.

    Names are, in fact, important. And to truncate or otherwise avoid addressing a person by their given name without permission is offensive. You don’t even have to put race into the equation to understand this.

  • Thanks, that was a fun article. I’m glad to see critical reasoning can still grow through the cracks of the internet.

  • When I lived in Korea everyone wanted to pronounce my name “Tuby”, which sounds more Korean, wheras “Toby” seems to blend Korean and Chinese and offends the grammar.

  • Rammnam

    I’m of East Indian origin and most of our names are derived from Sanskrit and have beautiful meanings. My ex- boss asked me if he could call me Nancy and I told him he could do that only if he allowed me to call him an Indian name. If I’m taking the time to learn a difficult Polish name, I should expect the same courtesy to learn mine.

  • [...] After Hollywood and the press unapologetically–and The Onion apologetically–showed their asses to actor Quvenzhané Wallis on her big night at the Oscars, even more people showed their love and support for the young one. PostBourgie’s Brokey McPoverty says this about Hollywood’s refusal to even pronounce Wallis’ n…: [...]

  • [...] After Hollywood and the press unapologetically–and The Onion apologetically–showed their asses to actor Quvenzhané Wallis on her big night at the Oscars, even more people showed their love and support for the young one. PostBourgie’s Brokey McPoverty says this about Hollywood’s refusal to even pronounce Wal…: [...]

  • [...] McPoverty, “What’s In A Name? Kind Of A Lot,” PostBourgie 2/26/13 (via [...]

  • [...] Black women are routinely stripped of control of ourselves and our bodies.  We are “Little Q” o…. [...]

  • [...] TED Talk about the “Danger of a Single Story” and read an excellent blog post “What’s in a Name? Kind of a Lot.” They had such an earth shaking result on my thinking that I have re-posted them and sent [...]

  • [...] watching the disgusting hatred and willful ignorance regarding reporters refusing to pronounce 9-year-old Academy Award nominee Quvenzhané [...]

  • [...] McPoverty wrote “What’s In a Name? Kind of a Lot” at PostBourgie. [CN: racial discrimination, power, control, [...]

  • [...] articulated beautifully in this article about the complete lack of effort of Hollywood presenters to learn Quvenzhané Wallis’ name, [...]

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