Column: It may seem small, but getting someone’s name right matters

Rowena Finn [Courtesy]

VIRGINIA BEACH — Last month, The Richmond Times-Dispatch published an article about an effort to push Tracie Liguid, the first Filipino American to run for state delegate in House District 84, out of the race. When this article was shared on social media, comments by Virginia Beach School Board Member Dottie Holtz, a longtime member of the board and a colleague of someone facing Liguid in a primary, twice misspelled Liguid’s distinctive name. 

Holtz did not correct this error despite repeated attempts by me and other commenters in the social media discussion to get her to do so. Holtz could have apologized or simply acknowledged her error, then moved on with the discussion. Instead, she responded to me with this:

“Stop being so petty. Are you running for something?”

This interaction may seem small, but it is, in fact, significant, and it is something people of color experience regularly. 

A microaggression is an unintentional, sometimes subtle expression of bias or prejudice against a member of a marginalized group. Repeatedly or intentionally misspelling Liguid’s non-Anglo-Saxon name subtly invalidated her importance and authority. To take the time to spell and pronounce a person’s name correctly is more than a simple courtesy. It is basic respect.

In a post at the website “Teaching While White,” Dr. Ali Michael asserts that “names are connections to family, to culture, to community, to the core of our selves. It’s important to get them right, to pronounce them correctly, to honor them. Getting someone’s name wrong isn’t inherently offensive. … It has a distancing effect.”

Rather than debating any actual policy disagreements, Holtz discredited a woman of color by misrepresenting her unique name. The initial misspelling might not necessarily be considered a microaggression. But it becomes one when there is no excuse left for not knowing better and correcting oneself. It seems intentional.

How many children in our school system suffer from this kind of microaggression? What happens when these children become adults? When people with authority refuse to spell or pronounce our names correctly, it is an attempt to invalidate our identity and our significance. What does that say about our value and importance within our own community?

By accusing me of being petty rather than making a simple correction, Holtz ignored a wider issue of the racism people really experience, which is one of the reasons it is important to see people like Liguid running for leadership positions in our communities.

Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities experience this regularly. This sort of thing minimizes what is important to us and makes us believe that we have no right to speak up. This derisiveness implies that we need to “stay in our lane” and that we do not have a seat at the table.

I am not running for any office, but I am a member of this community. I have a fundamental right to speak up against dismissive and racial bias. Interactions like these occur all over Virginia Beach every single day. This is part of the wider discussion about equity we are having in our communities and in our schools.

Microaggressions are so commonplace that they are often ignored, even by those of us they affect. Cumulatively, they make a dent in our daily lives. They wear away at our identity. 

Ordinary actions like making a phone call or placing an order are tainted by these sorts of transgressions, whether they are intended or not. Microaggressions have gone unchallenged for centuries, and negatively impact the abilities of minorities to fully participate and contribute within our society. 

As a member of the School Board, I hope Holtz will consider this a learning moment. After all, one of the tenets of our school system is to produce lifelong learners.

The author, a high school teacher in Norfolk, is the daughter of Filipino immigrants who settled in Virginia Beach and gained their U.S. citizenship over three decades ago. She grew up attending Virginia Beach public schools, and she is the parent of three children attending Virginia Beach schools.

© 2021 Pungo Publishing CO., LLC

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