It is hard to see how Georgia’s Senator David Perdue genuinely mispronounced the name of a woman with whom he’s had to work for nearly four years in the United States Capitol yet, that is what his team alleges was the case on Friday, October 16.
“KAH-ma-la, ka-MAH-la, kama-LAH, Kamala-mala mala. I don’t know. Whatever,” Perdue said to a crowd that had come out for President Donald Trump in Macon, Georgia. The crowd cheered excitedly, picking up on Perdue’s supposed mistake.
If it was not a mistake, why would the senator do that? The answer is not far-fetched – Perdue knew his predominantly white Southern crowd and played to the gallery, stressing on the anomaly that was the name “Kamala” and setting off alarm bells.
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With performative difficulty in pronouncing the name of the politician who could become the first female vice-president of Black and Indian heritage, Perdue suggested that this was someone different, one of the others. It was a dog whistle of the finest frequency and in line with the nationalist fervor that has gripped the Republican Party since Trump became a political colossus.
About Harris, Trump himself has played this particular tune of awkwardly botching up her name for the same effect Perdue intended.
“By the way, do you know who’s further left and crazier than Bernie? KA-MAH-lah, Ka-maa-la, Kamala!,” the president said to a crowd in North Carolina in September – the syllables rolling off his tongue as if he tasted contempt. For a man who has told congresswomen of color born in the United States to “go back” to where they came from, that occasion in North Carolina surprised too few of us to too little an extent.
Harris’ woes, orchestrated by her detractors, go further than mocking her name. In August, after she was announced as Joe Biden‘s running mate, John Eastman, a law professor, and Republican, questioned Harris’ right to manage the Oval Office if need be, in an op-ed published by Newsweek.
In a strategy reminiscent of Trump’s birther crusade against America’s first Black president, Eastman argued that the citizenship status of Harris’ Jamaican father and Indian mother at the time of Harris’ birth, made it impossible for Harris to be president.
But the latest attack on Harris’ dignity and identity is one that will be shared by millions of African-Americans as well as other racial minorities. They are going to hear Perdue’s mockery and take personal offense because it is an all-too-familiar tactic of the blood-and-soil crew.
The phenomenon of “Black-sounding names” and the real-life consequences it has revealed for African-Americans will be replayed in the minds of many. For all those times they have been told their names are “odd” or “unusual”, Black Americans and other racial minorities grabbed what Perdue sought to do and turned it into an opportunity to restate their identity.
Via the hashtag #MyNameIs last weekend, different peoples made it clear that Perdue and his kind are headed to a defeat in the long run. It may take more than this election or the next two but America would soon have to reckon with the transgression of stratifying identities according to the expectations of its Anglo-Saxon heritage.
Names of Black people have for decades conjured images of a ghettoized, unruly and uneducated lot for larger American society. Admittedly, this cancer has found its into the heart of African-American communities where there is reified resistance against the DeAndres, Shanices, Jadas and Tyrones we have become used to.
It should however not go without mentioning that Black life and living in America have been perpetually in the white gaze. When Black people believe DeAndre is “odd” but Chris is “normal”, the need is to examine the terms upon which this scale of normality rests.
What is in a name? Apparently, your identity, hopes and a lot more. And for members of the party that has wondered for so long why Black people refuse to vote for them, they may need to start looking Black people face to face instead of down on them.