(October 18, 2020)
On Friday October 16, Georgia Republican Senator David Perdue mockingly mispronounced Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate Senator Kamala Harris’ first name at a rally for President Donald Trump in Perdue’s home state.
As Catholics, we cannot look the other way from this type of mocking regardless of one’s political party preference. We are called to imitate Christ, who by no means would make fun of someone’s name, especially given the xenophobic implications of such mockery.
Similar to Senator Harris, I am of Indian-American origin and I have been taunted my whole life for my long ethnic last name, even among so-called Christians, and even among my fellow religious community members when I was studying to be a Jesuit priest.
I can tell you that such treatment over my whole life resulted in much inner negativity and low self-esteem, wishing I was not born in my own skin and in my own race.
But Jesus loves my skin, He loves my race, and He loves my name. Otherwise, God would not have loved me into existence in these conditions.
I cannot speak for Senator Harris, but I would imagine that she too has experienced such ill treatment for much of her life for having an ethnic name.
I am grateful that she is such a strong and courageous person, but it does not mean that such treatment was without pain.
Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, not to inflict pain. Senator Perdue inflicted pain not only to Senator Harris, but sent a painful reminder to every person who has ever experienced this type of injustice.
Following this racist incident, several prominent Persons of Color created a trend on Twitter with the hash tag #MyNameis highlighting the beauty and importance of their ethnic names:
- Former US Attorney Preet Bharara: “#MyNameis Preet, which means love.”
- California US House Representative Ted Lieu: “#MyNameis Ted W. Lieu. The ‘W’ is short for ‘Win-Ping’ which in Mandarin means ‘Cloud of Peace.’”
- Minnesota US House Representative Ilhan Omar: “#MyNameIs Ilham, I prefer Ilhan. I never liked the M sound. It means ‘Inspiration’ in Arabic. My father named me Ilham and inspired me to lead a life of service to others.”
- California US House Representative Ro Khanna: “#MyNameIs Rohit, and my friends call me Ro. It means bright light in Sanskrit. This election, #IWillVote for an inclusive America by voting for @joebiden & @kamalaharris.”
#MyNameIs Mathew Kappadakunnel. My first name is my paternal grandfather’s name. In South India, “Mathew” is spelled with one “t” and is the namesake of St. Matthew. “Kappadakunnel” means “house on top of a tapioca hill” in the South Indian language Malayalam.
This is a name that denotes family pride, not a name for derision.
Many South Indian-Americans no longer have their family name as their last name, but either their father’s first name or an abbreviated form of their family name as their surname.
I am grateful that my parents gave me this name and that I get to share this name with my children.
We all have room for error, however rather than admit he was wrong, Senator Perdue’s campaign defended his remarks. “Senator Perdue simply mispronounced Senator Harris’ name, and he didn’t mean anything by it.”
When a Christian errs, a Christian honestly admits one’s wrongs and asks for forgiveness. Notwithstanding the supposed intent, Senator Perdue inflicted harm, and he ought to express contrition.
Moreover, the statement from Perdue’s campaign reflects white privilege in believing such an empty response is sufficient.
As many of us who have had our ethnic names ridiculed know, such treatment suggests that we do not belong here. Even President Donald Trump propagated a position that Senator Harris is not a valid US citizen.
Catholics have no problem attesting to abortion being a sin. Abortion renders a fetus as not belonging in this world.
Ridiculing Senator Harris’ first name suggests that she does not belong in this white supremacist world. Both views are wrong and both need to be condemned.
As Catholics we are called to vote according to our conscience, but conscience formation is not self-serving but has the common good and the marginalized in mind.
In Dr. Sam Rocha’s closing statement in his position on the Catholic Case for Joe Biden, he stated, “I also challenge my brothers and sisters in the Church to realize that a lot of people are suffering under Trump and a lot of the conversation in particular about race has created a fairly broken establishment.”
We as Catholics cannot look into the eyes of our brothers and sisters, both inside and outside the Church, who have ethnic names and who experience this suffering on a daily basis, and not show them concern.
Jesus calls us to welcome the stranger (Matt 25:35), and He calls the persecuted “blessed” (Matt 5:11).
We cannot be bystanders while this evil reoccurs. Our faith calls us to promote the love of neighbor and to work against hate.
Rather than appeal to Christian principles to stir up a political rally supported by many on the religious right, Senator Perdue appealed to cheap racist jeers to gain crowd approval.
This reveals that Senator Perdue’s political party is not about Christian values but white supremacy and racism.
Catholics therefore cannot ignore this incident in their conscience formation when they choose to vote. Otherwise they will be complicit in the sin of racism.