Heidi Stevens: Why some Americans still mispronounce Kamala Harris, despite her almost two decades in public service (it’s Comma-Lah)
Summary: Raja Krishnamoorthi is confident that Kamala Harris’ name will, soon enough, be second nature. “People are going to learn to say her name,” he said. “Especially when she becomes vice president.”
It’s pronounced “Comma-Lah.” Soft vowels. Equal emphasis on all three syllables.
Vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris’ first name has Hindi origins (her mother was born in India; her father was born in Jamaica). And despite her almost two decades in public office, it continues to inspire a variety of mispronunciations.
Earlier this week, Fox News Host Tucker Carlson was corrected by guest Richard Goldstein, a Democratic consultant, when Carlson pronounced Harris’ first name “Camel-ah.”
“OK,” Carlson replied to Goldstein’s correction. “So what?”
“I think out of respect for someone who’s going to be on the national ticket,” Goldstein answered, “pronouncing her name right is kind of a bare minimum.”
“So I’m disrespecting her by mispronouncing her name unintentionally?” Carlson replied. “So it begins. You’re not allowed to criticize Ka-MAL-a Harris, or KAM-a-la Harris or whatever?”
Angela Rye, former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, replied thusly, in a CNN segment later that evening:
“There’s nothing ‘or whatever’ about this moment. We fought for this moment. We organized for this moment, and we celebrated when this moment arrived. So there’s nothing ‘whatever’ about this moment. And yes, I’m calling this moment Comma-Lah. Comma-Lah. Comma-Lah.”
Mispronunciations of Harris’ first name are not new. In 2016, when Harris was running for U.S. Senate, her campaign even released a #KidsforKamala video of children instructing voters how to pronounce her first name. Still, they continue.
Raja Krishnamoorthi, U.S. Representative for Illinois’ 8th congressional district, can relate.
“When I first ran for office I introduced myself as Raja Krishnamoorthi to someone in Chicago and the person said to me, ‘Roger Christian Murphy! Very nice to meet you!’”
Not a week goes by, Krishnamoorthi said, that he’s not called Roger or Mr. Murphy. Usually, he gently corrects the person, shares a laugh, and they move on.
“In a lot of cases,” he said, “it’s just innocent and there’s no malintent.”
“The challenge we’re seeing with Kamala Harris’ name is when people are trying to mispronounce it for some other reason,” he continued. “I think in some cases what you’re seeing is either someone trying to mispronounce it so it sounds more foreign or more exotic than it actually is, to make her seem like the ‘other,’ or they’re just pronouncing it, however, the heck they want, trying to convey that it’s not a name that’s worth pronouncing properly.”
Both approaches are tactical, he said.
“The vast, vast majority of Americans don’t possess either of those forms of nefarious intent,” he said. “But some politicians do. Some people do. They want to message through their mispronunciation. They want to distance that person from the very people that may be voting, and that really is very, very bothersome.”
Educator and activist Dilara Sayeed said she spent her life answering to Deloris, Delora and, sometimes, simply Dee.
“They will say, ‘Oh my gosh. That’s so hard. Can I just call you Dee?’” Sayeed told me.
“Our name is the first thing chosen for us when we are born,” she said. “It is a really important first piece of our identity. When people ask who we are, we begin with our name.”
Growing up in Chicago, Sayeed said, she resented her name.
“I wanted to be a Sarah,” she said. “I would say to my mom, ‘I have never met a Dilara in my life. What the hell were you thinking when you named me? And she said, ‘But it’s a beautiful name. It means something that pleases the heart. It comes from a vibrant culture, from a Persian culture.’ But I spent my own life being everything from ignored, bullied or literally having my name changed.”
Now she loves her name. And she sees a growing respect and appreciation in America for the cultural and ethnic diversity that is reflected in her name, in Kamala Harris’ name.
“I’m hopeful,” she said. “Why don’t we, as an American culture, learn to wrap our tongues around the diverse names, just like the diverse faces we see around us? These are the vibrant cultures that make up our dynamics in the United States of America. We are there. We’re ready for it. And you know that we’re ready for it because we’ve even got a VP candidate to show we’re ready for it.”
Sayeed said she knows several Kamalas in the South Asian community.
“And now every one of those girls named Kamala and every one of those women named Kamala will have a unique pride in their name,” she said. “And that just tickles me. That’s awesome.”
Krishnamoorthi, whose family is from Tamil Nadu, the same state in southern India where Harris’ mother was born, said Harris and her name add a layer of richness to the American story.
“Not only is she strong and tough and smart and ready to be vice president,” he said, “I think that her unique story embodies the American dream. You see pictures of her family and you see your own family.”
Sayeed said Harris’ candidacy is a potent reminder that leadership can look all different ways.
“In the end,” Sayeed said, “I’m not voting for her because she’s Kamala, even though we are South Asian sisters. I will vote for someone whose core values align with my core values, who fights for civic justice. I’m looking for someone who has courage, integrity, intelligence, diplomacy, who comes with the humility of service. I want it all in one package in a top leader in our nation. And all of those things can come in the package named Kamala. They can come in the package named Karen. They can come in the package named Jonathan. They can come in the package named Jose.”
Krishnamoorthi is confident that Kamala Harris’ name will, soon enough, be second nature.
“People are going to learn to say her name,” he said. “Especially when she becomes vice president.”
Heidi Stevens writes the daily “Balancing Act” column for the Chicago Tribune.