My name is Oluyemisi Ayoyinka Bolonduro (Oh-lou-yem-ih-see / Eye-yo-yeen-kah / Bo-lawn-doo-row). But for all of K-12 I went by a nickname. It made my presence simpler for others and allowed for easy assimilation. I even memorized my order in class to avoid embarrassing moments where my name was butchered during attendance. If I wasn’t proactive, the misnaming would be followed by bouts of laughter, the kind of microaggression all too familiar to many Black kids.
I didn’t stop my peers from calling me “Hennessy” a liquor popularly associated with Black Americans as explained by Taylor Crumpton’s piece,“How Hennessy Found a Home in the Black Community.” I never drank in high school so my peers found the irony entertaining. I was their entertainment.
Instead of standing up for myself, I remained the recipient of jokes I never thought were funny. It’s strange to think that I spent eighteen years presented as someone who isn’t me. I often wonder why I never questioned the implications of my nicknames. Now, I go by my full name, but I still struggle to pause conversations to correct mispronunciations of it.
I’m not alone in being misnamed. In fact, there are people who’ve written about it. In their editorial “Naming Ourselves and Others,” Rivera Maulucci and Felicia Moore Mensah say, “from a Western perspective, naming is about knowing and defining the Other.” Ruchika Tulshyan’s article “If You Don’t Know How to Say Someone’s Name, Just Ask” refers to a study that concluded that mispronouncing names causes shame and dissociation from one’s culture. “How to Respect My Ethnic Name” by Anpu London is a guide that also explores the history and role of colonization in stripping people of their ethnic names. Duke University explored the causes of misnaming, suggesting that mix-ups occur within the same relationship categories: friend, family, colleague. Phonetic similarity is a cause as well, but not physical similarity. So, what does it mean if you meet me as a complete stranger with the first Yoruba name you’ve heard? What’s the excuse for addressing me incorrectly?
The culture of Yoruba people is found in West Africa. My connection to the language and lifestyle is through my Nigerian parents. Growing up, I liked to say that my parents somehow managed to fit the whole country into our home. My childhood dinners were almost always Nigerian; I will never say no to egusi soup and eba. Also, we regularly attended social gatherings in native attire (though I still can’t tie a gele). I grew up speaking English and Yagba, a dialect of the Yoruba language. I can’t say my pronunciation is perfect, even the name drop I provided earlier lacks the proper accents.
My favorite thing is when someone sees my name and instantly recognizes the culture behind it. My life in the States has prevented me from knowing everyday Nigerian knowledge, but I still feel like I’m aware of my heritage. Hearing my name spoken correctly reaffirms that confidence.
If you meet someone with a name you’re unfamiliar with, here are my suggestions for learning how to pronounce their name correctly, right from the start:
- Intentionally listen to how they pronounce their name when you meet.
- Ask them to pronounce it again, if necessary. It’s up to you to remember how to say it.
- Don’t ask for alternative ways to address them.
- Check the spelling of their name.
- Never say their name is “exotic.”
- Don’t feign an accent from the country you think their name comes from.
- Follow up about someone’s preferred name if you learned a nickname before their full name.
If you can relate to my story, I hope the name you’ve picked is truly yours. Ask yourself if it’s your preference or a convenience for someone else.
How do you make that change? You can start small and build up. I started going by Oluyemisi in college. I introduced myself with my full name in the new environment, but people from home still used my nickname. A year later, I started telling those from home to use my full name. It’s likely you’ll be met with hostility and/or entitlement. People may question your decision as if they have a right to say who you are and what your name is. They may think they’re excluded from the number of people who have to use your full name because they’ve known you for so long. You’ll quickly find out who’s willing to do the bare minimum to respect you and your name.
When it comes to correcting people, don’t give them the easy way out by soothing their guilt. As someone who often puts others first, it’s easy to “shrink [myself] for someone else’s comfort,” as artist and “Recipes for Self Love” author Alison Rachel puts it. Knowing and establishing my boundaries is hard. But I’m fulfilled when I stand firm about my name. It feels like I’m finally reclaiming a part of myself that I was forced to hide all these years.
Translated from Yoruba, Oluyemisi Ayoyinka Bolonduro means “God Honors Me / Joy Surrounds Me / Abide With God.” My name should be spoken correctly, with respect. I am proud of my name, and I am proud of the story, culture, and power behind it.