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What’s in a name? Identity, pride and love. Ask Kamala Harris

Perdue sinks to Trump’s level, evoking painful history of racist othering

When David Perdue mocked Kamala Harris’ name, it wasn’t the first time Americans of color or from immigrant backgrounds have had their names distorted, Curtis writes.
When David Perdue mocked Kamala Harris’ name, it wasn’t the first time Americans of color or from immigrant backgrounds have had their names distorted, Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photos)

Every person’s name is special. It demands respect.

I learned how seriously I felt about that at a pre-coronavirus conference, when a speaker who fancied himself Don Rickles but came off more like the rude uncle at a holiday party, prefaced his remarks with a self-styled roast. It supposedly poked “fun” at the attendees, including, apparently, those he barely knew. (And frankly, except for an occasional greeting at conferences past, I did not know this man from a can of paint.)

That I used my middle initial seemed to him worthy of mockery, which I found odd, since as a Catholic girl in Catholic grade school, it was a not-uncommon way to tell the Marys apart. (In a habit that’s hard to break, I still call my best friend from those days Mary Eileen.)

But mostly, his jokes stung because my first and middle names were gifts from my parents, the way to carry on the legacy of a grandmother, my mother’s mother, who died before I was born, taken too soon by cancer. Every time I write that byline, it’s a sly way to honor a woman I never knew, but whom I always admired as she gazed at me from photos that showed someone with dignity, a beautiful smile and an exquisite sense of style, though her life was anything but easy.

Most people feel that way about the label they carry from birth to death, and many have their own stories to tell.

Down in Georgia

Someone who should know that, who should know better than to play games I would call childish if it did not insult children is the Republican senator from Georgia, David Perdue, who last week mocked the name of his Senate colleague and the Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, and has been trying to crawl out of the hole he dug for himself ever since. His excuse that he just innocently mispronounced it is ridiculous since Perdue has served on the Senate Budget Committee with Harris for years. It’s also not a hard name to remember if you are familiar with punctuation (COMMA-la).

For those who point out Harris’ ticket mate’s occasional stumbles over syllable emphasis, I say, anyone with a brain can tell the difference between a mistake and mockery. Perdue made the error, repeated it in case anyone missed the insult, and ran with it. Besides, Perdue also has gotten in trouble for an ad that seemed to enlarge the nose of his Democratic opponent Jon Ossoff — who happens to be Jewish — thereby forfeiting any benefit of the doubt. (Perdue had excuses for that too.)

Perdue’s corny and offensive act at a Donald Trump rally in Macon, Georgia, followed the lead of the reality show host in chief, who also has made a point of mispronouncing Harris’ first name. It’s the same pattern of racist othering he tries with former President Barack Obama (Trump really should get professional help for that obsession) and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, an elected official Trump keeps trying to send home, when that American citizen is already here.

The president has also called Harris, elected by the people of California, a “monster,” which says nothing about her but everything about Trump and how he feels about women in general, and women of color in particular.

One wonders if Perdue knows the story of George Allen, the onetime GOP senator from Virginia with White House hopes, who was defeated in his 2006 reelection bid after making up a name to call an Indian American staffer on his opponent’s campaign, and sarcastically welcoming him to America — all caught on tape. The cheap and ugly theatrics did not appeal to non-Indian American voters either.

Amid a coronavirus crisis, economic uncertainty, and serious threats from white domestic terrorist groups bent on attacking law enforcement, sitting governors and democracy itself, this is what Trump, Perdue and their ilk have to offer? Even the Trump rallygoers did not seem that impressed, mustering slightly more than rote chuckles for the Perdue routine that flopped.

As long as his audience of one approved, I guess the Georgia incumbent was happy.

A cruel history

A name seems like a small thing. But it’s not.

“Calling people out of their names” has often been a tool to make sure the person on the receiving end knew who made the rules. It was a cruel welcome, along with torture, rape and enslavement, for the men, women and children kidnapped from Africa, their names as well as bodies stolen.

“George” along with “boy,” was the name every Pullman porter — grown men all — had to answer to, as they served white passengers traveling the country on luxury sleeping railroad cars, doing anything to please, at the insistence of owner “George” Pullman and to make their ridiculously low pay stretch with tips. The youngest white child in the South was allowed to call any Black person, no matter how old or accomplished or dignified, by first name only, the child trained from infancy on who did and did not matter.

Part of the immigrant story is the “nickname,” sometimes taken and sometimes given, to make life easy for the lazy, when asking someone how his or her or their name is pronounced would be a courteous and quick way to show respect.

Of course, the president would elevate some names and organizations, QAnon and Proud Boys, contradicting his own FBI, which thwarted a plot against a sitting governor, when Director Christopher Wray has testified that white supremacist domestic terrorism is a top threat this country faces.

We know where Trump stands, while acolytes like Perdue play along, fighting for a front-row seat at super-spreader rallies and a turn at the microphone, setting up certain Americans as somehow “foreign.” One can only guess the fallout if the election — despite voting restrictions, Postal Service slowdowns and mail-in voting lies — does not go Trump’s way and those “real” Americans are called on to commit some very un-American acts.

From the stories she tells about her mother, a cancer researcher who died of the disease, Harris’ name means a lot to her. “Kamala” is a link to her ancestors and her Indian heritage and lessons she learned from the parent I’m sure she misses every day. In her 2019 memoir, “The Truths We Hold,” Harris wrote that her name “means ‘lotus flower,’ which is a symbol of significance in Indian culture. A lotus grows underwater, its flower rising above the surface while its roots are planted firmly in the river bottom.”

How lyrical. Wouldn’t it be boring if America were home only to Marys, though, of course, every Mary also has a story worth considering? And after Perdue’s stunt that backfired, Americans with names of every kind have been sharing more examples than I’m sure he can handle.

Where many hear beauty, Perdue grabbed a chance to sink to Boss Trump’s level. He might “look” at Harris every day he goes to work; but he doesn’t “see” her, or her all-American family story.

There is a name for that too.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

CQ Roll Call’s newest podcast, “Equal Time with Mary C Curtis,” examines policy and politics through the lens of social justice. Please subscribe on AppleSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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