Since Kamala Harris was announced as Joe Biden’s pick for Vice President, the negative immediate media coverage of Harris has, as expected, been swift and vicious. She’s already been attacked by right-wing commenters, and called 'nasty' by the President. But another big, underlying trend has been far simpler: Harris' first name has been regularly mispronounced, often intentionally by the likes of seasoned political commentators like Tucker Carlson.
But Harris, who pronounces her first name “COMMA-luh” and not “kuh-MA-luh,” shouldn't have to deal with this. She’s been in the political spotlight for years, including her own presidential run just a few months ago that turned her into a household name. She explicitly instructed readers on the pronunciation in her 2019 memoir. And when she was ran for a California senate seat in 2016, she released an instructive video of cute kids who could say her name without a problem. The failure to correctly pronounce Harris’ name — especially among those whose jobs it is to know — is just a racist dog whistle being used to belittle Harris, who is Black and Indian-American.
On Carlson’s show Tuesday, the host mispronounced Harris' name. When guest Richard Goodstein, an advisor to Democratic campaigns, politely corrected him, Carlson shot back: “So what?” he said.
“Out of respect, for somebody who’s going to be on the national ticket, pronouncing her name right is actually kind of a bare minimum,” Goodstein responded.
"So I'm disrespecting her by mispronouncing her name unintentionally?" Carlson replied while laughing. "So it begins! You're not allowed to criticize 'kuh-mah-lah Harris' or 'camel-la Harris,' or whatever...I love the idea that she's immune from criticism." After Goodstein corrected Carlson, he went on to intentionally mispronounce her name three more times.
Tucker Carlson loses it when a guest corrects his pronunciation of Kamala Harris's name pic.twitter.com/1fHIrPGuwN— nikki mccann ramírez (@NikkiMcR) August 12, 2020
While Carlson might attempt to explain this as holding political leaders "to account," there is nothing productive about mispronouncing the name of a former presidential candidate and potentially, our future vice president, when your job as a broadcast journalist literally requires you to do so on air.
“Being able to pronounce people’s names is part of being in broadcasting. You’re a professional talker,” tweeted podcast host Touré. “You don’t get to say Kamala is too complicated to pronounce it right (but Klobuchar is easy). You’re making your disrespect clear.”
Many women politicians of color have experienced the distinct disrespect of having their names repeatedly mispronounced. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib admitted that "People still can’t pronounce my name, but they remember the things that I do for them.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called out Fox News for omitting the “Ocasio” from her name.
And yet people have learned to properly pronounce “Kavanaugh” and “Buttigieg.” The same has not been afforded to non-white figures — political or otherwise. As Hasan Minhaj pointed out to Ellen Degeneres, people seem to have an easier time with Timothée Chalamet’s name than his own. Similarly, Uzo Aduba’s mother explained to her about her own Nigerian name, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”
Studies have found, over and over again, that there is a bias that assumes people in leadership roles will be white. That’s because, for most of history, they have been. But as each election has set records for women and people of color being elected to Congress, it’s been proof that the tide is starting to turn.
Harris is testament to that: American leadership is changing and whether bigots like it or not, they’re going to have to get used to it. This includes Carlson, who will — and should — continue to face criticism if he refuses to respect Kamala by calling her by her name.