Friday 1 March 2013

"I am Quvenzhané": Racism, Anglocentrism and Quvenzhané Wallis

Posted by Galatea

[TW: This post contains discussion of racism and misogyny]

[image description: A screenshot of the Twitter feed from ‘The Onion’, a satirical website. It was posted at 8.42pm on Feb 24, 2013 and reads “Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a cunt, right?”. The word 'cunt' has been blacked out: this was added by the source from which I obtained the picture]

Yes, that Tweet was posted as a ‘joke’, and yes, The Onion has subsequently taken it down and apologised for it (and good for them for doing so).  However, I’d still like to unpack some of the discourse that has been going on around Quvenzhané Wallis, her name, and her position in Hollywood over the past few days.

Here is a list of names (assembled in about ten minutes on the Lashings mailing list) that the film-going, TV-watching and novel-reading public has had no problem at all in learning to pronounce and relate to in the past fifteen years:

Arwen Undómiel
Meriadoc Brandybuck
Leia Organa
Neytiri the Na’avi
Miles Vorkosigan
Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan
Raistlin Majere
Danearys Targaryen
Cersei Lannister
Garrus Vakarian
Bhelen Aeducan
Elphaba Thropp

Yes, these are all fictional characters, and yes some of them are from texts that do appeal more to that special geeky sub-section of the public that I hold dear. However, it sure seems to me that names which are difficult-to-pronounce for an English speaker don’t attract much in the way of screaming and whining if they come attached to Sparkly Elven Princess or Awesome Wizard or Space-Age Alien. However, when the name that presents an Anglophone speaker with some difficulty belongs to a young Black girl – even a ridiculously talented and adorable one – what we seem to end up with is comments like this (made, I remind you, by someone who was responsible for judging the Academy Awards):
"I also don’t vote for anyone whose name I can’t pronounce. Quvez---? Quzen---? Quyzenay? Her parents really put her in a hole by giving her that name -- Alphabet Wallis." 
In the words of Junot Díaz, one of Galatea’s literary lust-objects du jour, “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3 Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they think we’re taking over”.

In the past few days, we’ve also seen incidents of TV producers and commentators referring to Quvenzhané Wallis as ‘Little Q’ and ‘Miss Wallis’, presumably out of a desire to avoid having to say or type her real name (I don’t recall Haley Joel Osment being referred to as ‘Little H’ or ‘Mr Osment’ shortly after the release of The Sixth Sense, do you?).  My point here is that yes, ‘Quvenzhané’ is an unusual name, and one that doesn’t follow pronunciation rules that are familiar for a speaker of British English. I didn’t know how to say it when I first saw it written down either! But it is a real name, it is her name, and it literally takes all of ten seconds to learn how to say it properly (here’s a handy guide, which includes a video of the lady herself saying it for you!). If you’re a professional commentator on the entertainment industry, barring disability issues or temporary lack of access to communications devices, learning to say/spell the name of the person you’re speaking or writing about seems like a fairly basic minimum job requirement to me.

Interestingly, I suspect that the reactions of Anglophone people around Wallis’ name are to some extent backed up by research. A joint study produced last year by the University of Melbourne and NYU suggested something the researchers called the ‘name pronunciation effect’, meaning that people in the study were more likely to positively evaluate people with ‘easily pronounceable’ names in both a laboratory and a real-life context. You can read a short article about the study here and a copy of the report itself here

And despite the fact that a lot of people regard Quvenzhané Wallis with affection and joy, there have been a number of such negative evaluations. See the not-so-subtle hostility in the comments on this Jezebel post, for example (for those who don’t want to click through, the post features an image of Wallis ‘pumping her arms’ in her seat at the Award ceremony: apparently a gesture of pleasure and pride used by many cast and crew members on the film Beasts of the Southern Wild, the film for which Wallis was nominanted). At the time of writing, comments included:
“Am I the only one who saw this and was disgusted? I immediately decided I didn't want her to win because I don't want her to get any more full of herself than she seemed right there.”  
“Sorry this Quvenzhane kid annoys the fuck outta me. She's insufferable. Ever see her on a talk show? She is dangerously carried away with herself - way past the point of cute. You're never too young to learn humility.”

Which brings me back to the 'cunt' comment in the Onion. Yes, it was a joke -- a joke that revolved around the idea that so many people love Quvenzhané that you can now base humour on the idea of 'taking her down a peg or two': the basic premise of the comedy is still that a little girl -- a little Black girl -- has 'got above her station' and this makes it funny and shocking to throw misogynist slurs at her.  

Intersecting with the obvious racism here (a nine-year-old kid looks pleased and happy at the effing Oscars and she's 'full of herself' and needs to 'learn humility'? WTF?) I think that the jokes and complaints around Quvenzhané's name are particularly interesting. Here is where it veers off the theoretical and gets a little personal for me: in non-Lashings life, my family name is non-English and is difficult for many English speakers to pronounce. It's worth noting that for me, this comes with a large side-serve of white privilege (classic immigrant story: perfectly-ordinary-name in non-English-language became awkwardly-misspelled-uncommon-name when illiterate great-grandparents came into contact with English-speaking immigration officials). However, I’ve certainly felt that hostility, that slight frisson of ‘Ugh, awkward kid with awkward name’, even though my racial privilege shields me from most of the worst aspects of it. It was much worse when I was a kid and subject to the whims of roll-calling teachers, but is still around to some extent today. Anyone who’s ever had a microaggressive conversation that ran along the lines of

“What kind of name is that?”
 “How do you say that?”
“How do you spell that?”
 “Are you sure?”
“Where are you from?”
“No, where are you really from?”

might agree. When the 'name pronunciation effect' study first came out, I shared it with a number of friends on Facebook. Several people jumped in to say that I had it wrong -- there wasn't any kind of racial or cultural bias at work in the study: it's just that people don't like names which are 'unfamiliar'. By an amazing co-incidence, the contradictors were all people with English-based names living in majority-English-speaking countries. Reader, I LOL'ed. It's about more than 'unfamiliarity', I'm afraid. Yes, a ‘difficult’ name demands that the person who needs to use it work a little harder: ‘Quvenzhané’ requires more effort from an Anglophone teacher or secretary (or ‘Entertainment Tonight’ journalist) than ‘Sarah’ or ‘Jane’. That's called cognitive bias, it's a real thing, and cheers to fellow Lasher Bishop for reminding me of it. 

HOWEVER, I suspect that this interacts in some important ways with who we as a society deem worthy of ‘extra’ time and effort: we're much quicker to get over our cognitive bias about unfamiliar names when we think the person causing it is important or powerful. When I was little, adults didn't make much effort to say my name properly and were often rude and dismissive when they got it wrong: now that I'm an adult with a professional job, other people tend to be more careful about pronouncing it right and get embarrassed if they mess up. Funny, that. And thus back to Quvenzhané Wallis and an attitude that many powerful people seem to be projecting: who does this kid, this girl, think she is, ‘demanding’ (with her very presence) that we go to the trouble of learning how to say that tongue-twister? Can’t we just call her ‘Annie’ instead?

[GIF description: An interviewer is speaking to Quvenzhané Wallis. Interviewer: “Look who it is! It’s Annie!” (a reference to Wallis’ recent casing in the 2014 remake of Annie). Interviewer: “I’m calling you Annie now.” Camera zooms in on Wallis’s face, she looks shocked and annoyed. Wallis: “I am not Annie! I am Quvenzhané”.]

To my mind, this explains in part why there's been very little crying about having to learn how to say names like 'Jake Gyllenhaal', 'Gerard Depardieu' or 'Arnold Schwarzenegger', and why I've never seen a reporter bounce up to Ralph Fiennes on the red carpet and demand to be allowed to call him 'Ralf'. The 'name pronunciation effect' seems to entangle itself with other factors affecting the way in which we deem people in society to be worthy of our effort and respect, and age, gender and whiteness are all key in this. Having been someone who, by age and gender, was not deemed worthy of that respect at various times in my life (oh, but that "I am not Annie!" expression in the gif above is identical to that which frequently appeared on the face of the infant Galatea), I see what's going on here and I don't like it. I dislike even more the fact that it's still going on in 2013, and that we'll apparently spend more effort on learning to say the name of a fictional hobbit, alien or dragon-keeper than a real live nine-year-old girl. 

I don’t have a quick or easy solution here, but I think that it’s important to keep this in mind, and to remind everyone that this bias exists and perhaps needs to be consciously countered where necessary. In other words, do 'vote for people you can't pronounce' if they deserve your votes, and maybe be conscious of the need to do so! Another simple act of respect that you and I can begin with is to deliberately set out to educate ourselves about names that are not familiar to us, and to use them correctly whenever possible (assuming that we have the permission of the owner to do so).

[image description: Quvenzhané Wallis standing outdoors, wearing a red dress and smiling].

Who does this kid think she is? She thinks she is Quvenzhané, and she’s damn well right.  


  1. This didn't fit in the main post, but it's delightful all the same: courtesy of Racialicious, have a hilarious short film about Latin@ kids' experience of having their names non-consensually Anglicised in the 1950s:

    It's from the Story Corps project, which you can learn more about here:

  2. I've been thinking about this issue a little bit. I see a lot of tumblrs from places like Riot Girl Berlin celebrating her. There seem to be quite a few Gifs of her around.

    I've been thinking about two things in particular. One is about famous people who have difficult names but people manage to learn it anyway. A recent example is of a Football player who I understand is of Samoan ancestry called Manti Te'o who had a lot of attention recently. I saw his name around a lot and it did take me some time to be able to say his name.

    I think it shows lazy journalism and lazy reporting that correspondents don't do their homework on the people they interview, and that includes being able to pronounce their name and know about their life and background to ask some insightful and half-decent questions. What smacks of racism to me is the way in which few journalists and media people seem to be bothered about her name and the more people aren't bothered the more of their reporter peers feel that things like 'Little Q' are appropriate.

    I was thinking about the example of Arnold Schwarzenegger that you mentioned (I'm unfortunately a fan of Arnie). It is true that many people who were promoting films like Conan and Terminator had concerns about putting his name on posters because US Audiences weren't familiar with non-anglophone names in the early 80s and late 70s (Arnold is notably known as 'Arnold Strong' in the film Hercules in New York). However, Schwarzenegger was very keen on having his full name put on, marketing people took a risk and it paid off, and people nowadays seem to have more problem spelling his name than saying it, which is a testament to the adaptability of a popular audience.

    I appreciate that the identity of a white bodybuilder with a thick accent in spoken English is different to Quvenzhané Wallis, but my point is that if journalists and media people wanted to learn how to pronounce names like Manti or Schwarzenegger, they can and they have. What this shows is that its just really a big joke to the idea that the US is 'post-racial' when they can't be bothered to pronounce Quvenzané.

    My second thought: I feel very self conscious about this issue because of my own real life name. My real life name doesn't sound very much like how people think someone of my ethnic background would be. It's probably why I get more interviews, but less decent results at them. I've been in really horrible situations where people mistake my ethnicity for a (stock indian name).

    One particular dire case was when I was at outpatient's psych hospital for treatment and I was mistaken for another Asian patient, it took 5 minutes in the appointment before I realised that they are asking me questions about treatment I wasn't receiving and I got quite confused by it, until I realised they thought I was someone else. That kind of sutff makes me quite angry, and upset.

    I have a name where I'm not even sure how to describe where it comes from. Because of the wonderful history of colonialism, there are Sephardic Jewish people with my name; Sri Lankans; Indians and African Indians; and even a French footballer with my name.

    Few people these days have issues with pronouncing my family name but I can sympathise if anyone hasn't come across it before. What I can't sympathise with is when people see skin colour instead of a person. Or someone's preconceptions get in the way of getting to know someone else. You'd think at this day and age racism is gone, but its around in that less detectable and nebulous way.