When I worked in the Registrar’s Office at Trinity College, I was in charge of inputting faculty advisers into the computer system. As part of the process, I sent the faculty a list of their advisees for confirmation. I sent a list to one professor, and included my standard email signature:
Office Coordinator, Registrar’s Office
“Thanks Jamal!” she wrote back with a smiley face.
This was a professor I’d known since I was a student. In fact, she’d been my adviser. She’d been mispronouncing my name for six years at that point, no matter how many times I corrected her. Eventually I gave up. It was clear that this sixty year old white woman was never going to pronounce my ethnic name correctly.
I chalked it up to cultural obtuseness- it’s well-documented that white people just don’t give a damn about pronouncing ethnic names correctly. And my name is about as ethnic as they come. I was named after my father’s best friend, the only other Jamil I’ve met that spells his name the same way that I do. Our name is Arabic, which places us into an even smaller group of African Americans.
But as the years have passed, it’s been more than just white people mispronouncing my name. Black people mispronounce it. Hispanic people mispronounce it (and it’s not an unheard of name for Spanish speakers, as my ex-wife has a cousin named Yamil). And in the ultimate blow, I’ve had native Arabic speakers call me Jamal too, even after calling me Jamil the first time they met me.
That’s when I realized that it’s not a problem of pronunciation, but familiarity. Like I said, I’ve only met one person named Jamil, and only heard the name a handful of times in this part of the world. People call me Jamal because they’re more familiar with that name. Okay, cool, I get that. Yet that leads to a question: where the hell are all of the Jamals?
Like Jamil, I’ve only met one person named Jamal. He lived on the same street at as me when I moved to Bloomfield, and we didn’t even call him Jamal, but instead a nickname. I can only think of one famous Jamal, Jamal Lyon from Empire, and he’s not even real!. So it’s fine if my name is rare and people default to the familiar, but what’s familiar about Jamal? Am I just being squeezed out by an equally obscure name?
In any case, I’m not taking this too seriously. I’ve been called much worse than Jamal in the past, and now that I’m working in a school I’ve become accustomed to not even hearing my name at all and simply responding to “Mr.!” Someday, all of this will change, and Jamil will take it’s rightful place among the popular names of the Western world. I mean, if a name like Jackson can be #1, how hard can it be to make it to the top?