The not-so-hidden racism behind mispronouncing Kamala Harris’s name

OPINION: From Sarah Palin to Fox News host Tucker Carlson, White Republicans can't seem to put respect on the vice presidential nominee's name

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Why is it that Republicans and conservatives in the GOP bubble can’t seem to properly pronounce Kamala Harris’ name, or don’t seem to care what they call her?

For the record, it’s pronounced “‘comma-la.” 

Unfortunately, considering these folks who have no shortage of experience calling Black women out of their name and disrespecting them in general, this is to be expected. Nonetheless, it is offensive and outrageous.

Just like they did to Obama, the Republicans are turning the senator and Democratic vice-presidential nominee into the “other,” the “foreigner” with the funny-sounding name. Considering the source, that is predictable. And that is 100% unadulterated racism.

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When asked on Fox News about a Biden-Harris ticket, Sarah Palin mispronounced Kamala’s name in jest. “Well, it is a different type of combination when you consider what was said in the primary, you know Kamala (“CAMel-eh”) — Kamala (“Comma-lah”) — you say tomato, I say tomahto, I hate to say the name wrong because I’m going to get clobbered for that,” Palin said.

Sarah Palin Kamala Harris advice
Sarah Palin posted some advice for Kamala Harris the latest woman to run for VP. (Photos: Getty Images)

Similarly, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who essentially plays a White nationalist on TV, disrespected Sen. Harris when he mispronounced her name. After his guest, Democratic political consultant Richard Goodstein corrected him, he did it again.

“Tucker, can I say one quick thing. This is something that will serve you and your fellow hosts on Fox. Her name is pronounced comma, like the punctuation mark, lah. Kamala,” Goodstein said.

“OK. So what!” Carlson replied. “I think out of respect for somebody who’s going to be on the national ticket, pronouncing her name right. It’s kind of a bare minimum,” Goodstein shot back.

“So I’m disrespecting her by mispronouncing her name unintentionally?” Carlson responded, laughing. “So it begins, you’re not allowed to criticize Comma-lah Harris or Camel-eh Harris or whatever.”

“Comma-lah. No, no, no, it’s not whatever,” Goodstein added.

“OK, look I unintentionally mispronounced her name,” Carlson conceded. “But I love the idea that she’s immune from criticism.”

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On the surface, the mispronunciation of someone’s name might seem like a harmless or minor thing to some people. However, this is all about racism and xenophobia, specifically racial microaggressions — those subtle or even not-so-subtle insults that Black and Brown people experience on a daily basis, and which take a massive toll on their mental health.

These verbal acts of violence create anxiety and self-perception problems among their victims, a sense of  ”othering” — that their culture and identity don’t matter, and they are not true Americans.

In a society where White people are the only acceptable leaders, leaders of color — and outspoken women leaders of color such as Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib — are denigrated and told to go back home as their names are butchered. This is all about name-calling, and yet there is much more to unpack because the assumption is that if you can’t pronounce their names, you can’t trust them.

Ilhan Omar
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaks with media gathered outside Mercado Central on August 11, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota on the day of the primary election. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

And it matters little that Black people have lived in this country for over 400 years. We are still not American, they tell us. Having a Black-sounding name and a clear ethnic identity means you won’t get that job unless you whiten it up.   

We saw the disrespect and disregard of Barack Obama in full view with the Birtherism movement, of which Trump was its leader. Republicans making fun of Obama’s name — with an emphasis on his Arabic middle name Hussein — was part and parcel of a campaign to paint then-Senator and presidential candidate Obama as a foreign-born noncitizen whose presidency would be illegitimate.

Birtherism returned in an offensive and patently false Newsweek op-ed questioning Harris’ eligibility for vice president, arguing she is not a “natural born citizen” because her Indian mother and Jamaican father were not U.S. citizens when she was born.

When Black and Brown folks occupy previously White spaces, it is a cause for celebration for some, and an occasion for mourning for others. Just as Obama was a source of pride not only in Black America but in his father’s native Kenya, people in Jamaica and India are celebrating Kamala Harris, who would become America’s first Black, South Asian-American and woman vice president.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris
Democratic presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speak after the Democratic Presidential Debate. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Read More: Radio broadcaster fired for calling Sen. Kamala Harris ‘colored’

That is an unsettling history-making reality for the GOP, which has doubled down on White supremacy, White entitlement and White racial grievance, in the hopes of returning to an America where the White man reigned supreme.

In a nation where children of color are now in the majority and the enhanced melanization of America is imminent, Republicans are waging war against shifting racial demographics. 

This is why they are sabotaging the post office and rigging the election, criminalizing Black Lives Matter, caging and trafficking migrant babies, and disrespecting Black leaders for their name.  

Ultimately, they fear Kamala Harris, because they remember how she destroyed Attorney General Bill Barr and his predecessor Jeff Sessions on the witness stand, and they know she will do to current Vice President Mike Pence with even greater ease.

Mispronouncing Kamala’s name is an effort to render her invisible, in the hopes she and other Black women will simply go away. That is wishful thinking. Put respect on her name.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove.

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