David Perdue has served three years in the Senate with Kamala D. Harris. They worked on the budget committee together, and they have signed their names to some of the same legislation.
But when Perdue (R-Ga.) stood in front of a crowd of Trump supporters at a Georgia rally last weekend and called her “Ka-mal-a, Comma-la, Ka-Mala-mala-mala,” he was signaling that he didn’t know how to pronounce her name and it didn’t matter anyway. “Whatever,” he concluded before moving on, as some in the audience applauded appreciatively.
Mocking Harris’s first name — which means lotus in Sanskrit — is not original to Perdue. President Trump has eschewed the correct pronunciation of her name, “Comma-la,” for “Ka-MAL-a” at rallies for months now.
When a guest corrected Fox News host Tucker Carlson on his pronunciation of the vice-presidential nominee’s name, Carlson seemed affronted at the suggestion that mispronouncing it showed disrespect. After a few more attempts, he, too, brushed it aside with a “whatever.”
As Election Day nears, Harris’s supporters say opponents’ frequent mispronunciations of her name, and that of other candidates, are not simply a matter of confusion, but often intended to telegraph that they are different, foreign or in some way un-American.
“I think it’s been happening more and more during the Trump administration,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). “I mean, this is a sitting U.S. senator who he’s mocking and who is the first woman of color on a major party ticket — that’s not all a coincidence. That’s not only planned, but it’s the result of a president who has done everything he can to otherize and rile up crowds to do the same.”
Jayapal’s Republican opponent, Craig Keller, mispronounced her name at least a half-dozen times during a candidate forum this summer, including after she asked him to correct himself.
Asked for his perspective on the exchange, Keller sent The Washington Post an email that repeatedly called the congresswoman “Jail-a-pal.” He added in part, “Truly! How does one correctly pronounce it! ‘Jai a pal’, ‘Jay a pal’ or ‘Jail a pal’?” Her name is pronounced “JYE-uh-pal.”
Harris (D-Calif.) is the daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother, and some opponents have suggested — as they did with former president Barack Obama — that her background means she cannot serve as president, an assertion that is clearly untrue since she was born in the United States.
The Biden-Harris campaign has largely remained silent on the issue, reluctant to amplify what they see as a racist appeal to Trump’s base. But some Harris allies said they found Perdue’s remarks this weekend particularly galling.
“Well that is incredibly racist,” tweeted Harris’s press secretary Sabrina Singh after the rally.
Perdue’s staffers quickly released a statement on Twitter on the senator’s behalf claiming he had simply mispronounced Harris’s name and “didn’t mean anything by it.” That prompted a back-and-forth with Biden aides, one of whom called Perdue’s team “pathetic.”
Asked about Trump’s epithets for her, such as calling her a “monster,” Harris told a North Carolina television station this week that it’s “predictable, childish behavior, and no, I do not pay attention to it.”
Even Harris’s allies say people often mispronounce her first name without any bad intent. During her presidential primary campaign, supporters who introduced her at campaign events occasionally emphasized the wrong syllable or botched her name entirely (“Camille” was the product of one such doomed effort), only to learn of their mistake and apologize, or depart the stage awkwardly as the crowd cheered politely.
But others with unusual names say it’s clear when someone is making an innocent mistake and when there is a darker message.
“I don’t expect everyone to get it right on the first try,” said Hiral Tipirneni, a Democratic congressional candidate in Arizona. “But if they don’t and I correct them, I expect them to try to be mindful of that.”
Some politicians have opted to Anglicize their names in order to avoid the issue. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who was born Nimrata Randhawa, told the Charlotte Observer she shortened it because her maiden name “wouldn’t fit on a yard sign.”
Others have embraced their names as a sign of their heritage, like Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.). Obama brought what he called “a funny name” to the presidency; it was sometimes the subject of mockery, as when a Republican congressman forwarded an email referring to his wife as “Mrs. YoMama.” At a rally Thursday, Trump referred three times to “Barack Hussein Obama,” giving extra emphasis to “Hussein.”
Tipirneni, who is Indian American, said people have suggested she change her name to move up the political ranks. Jayapal corrected one of her colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), when she was pronouncing her name wrong and criticizing her simultaneously.
“If you’re going to say my name, please say it right,” Jayapal asked Lesko, who corrected herself.
Perdue’s flamboyant mispronunciation of “Kamala” has turned into an event in itself. Shortly after his remarks, Jayapal found herself “so peeved” she decided to host an Instagram live discussion on the importance of correctly saying others’ names.
The hashtag #MyNameIs began spreading on Twitter, as people tweeted their own names along with their meanings and, in some cases, their experiences with those who didn’t try to learn them.
The hashtag was started by Parag Mehta, former chief of staff to the U.S. Surgeon General, and his husband, Vaihbav Jain. Stories were shared by Jayapal, Tipirneni, retired figure skater (and Biden surrogate) Michelle Kwan, actor Patton Oswalt and others, including Harris’s sister Maya and niece Meena.
Perdue’s challenger, Democrat Jon Ossoff, raised $2 million in the first 48 hours after the senator’s remarks. A New York Times-Sienna Poll, conducted partially after the Perdue event, found Ossoff had closed a four-point gap since September, though that could not be definitively tied to the Harris issue.
But Ossoff spokeswoman Miryam Lipper, who worked for Harris during her presidential run, sees a connection. “The state of Georgia has changed dramatically since David Perdue was first elected to the Senate six years ago,” Lipper said in a statement. “These days, Perdue’s dog-whistles to his base, like his attack on Sen. Harris last week, undercuts months of attempting to convince moderate Georgia voters he’s one of them.”
Perdue’s office did not respond to a request to comment for this story. But the Georgia senator, a Trump ally, has sought during his reelection to cast himself as a relative moderate who is sympathetic to immigrants and victims of discrimination, in part because of his experience traveling abroad.
“My dad integrated one of the first school systems in Georgia,” Perdue told Fox News in June. “I’ve also lived in Asia where I had discrimination perpetrated toward me and my family. This is an emotional thing to me.”
The issue is not limited to politics. Rita Kohli, an education professor at the University of California at Riverside, co-authored a 2012 study concluding that the willful mispronunciation of someone’s name, especially one reflecting their cultural background, qualifies as a “racial microaggression.”
In an interview, Kohli said Perdue’s crowd was not simply applauding the botching of Harris’s name. “They’re cheering the idea that she’s not from here, she’s not American so we can’t take her seriously,” Kohli said. “There’s a deprofessionalization and othering that happens that we wouldn’t see them do to Joe Biden.”
Tiperneni said she spent a long time considering what to name her children, hoping to honor their heritage while avoiding names that would be hard to pronounce or would invite teasing from other kids. “I was thinking about a 9-year-old third-grader, not a United States senator,” she added.
In the end, she went with Mira, Anjali and Jalan for her children’s names. Tiperneni said a name’s familiarity depends on your vantage point.
“I wasn’t familiar with Cathy or Bobby or Jimmy or anything when I came to this country,” she said. “But you make an effort to learn, because that’s somebody’s name and that’s showing respect.”
In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, Democratic nominee Joe Biden leads President Trump, with 54 percent of likely voters favoring him vs. 42 percent for Trump.
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