At a recent campaign rally in Macon, Georgia, United States Senator David Perdue (R-GA) warmed up the crowd awaiting President Donald Trump’s arrival by willfully mispronouncing the name of fellow Senator Kamala Harris (Dt-CA).
Perdue, who serves on the Senate Budget Committee with Harris, derisively referred to the Democratic vice-presidential candidate as “Ka-MAL-a, Ka-MAL-a or Kamala, Kamala, Ka-mala, -mala, -mala, I don’t know, whatever,” as the audience laughed.
It is not hard to pronounce Senator Harris’ first name. In her 2019 memoir, The Truths We Hold, Harris explains that her name is pronounced “‘comma-la,’ like the punctuation mark.” Kamala means lotus flower, an important symbol in Indian culture. Harris’ Indian heritage comes from her late mother, Shyamala, who immigrated from India to California in 1958.
‘They Are Not Like Us’
David Perdue’s “humor” should be called what it is: sophomoric and racist. One of the tools of bigotry is belittling people’s names. Perdue, presumably, never had to endure someone making fun of his name. Americans with names like Anitha, Giuseppe, Chaim, Chiu Chen, Dewayne, Hachiro, Ichiro, Juan, Kadeem, Lashwan, Moesha, Moshe, or Talisha may not have been as fortunate as Perdue.
What Perdue is doing is called “othering” – it is a means to convey the message, “Those people are not like us. We are the way people are supposed to be. Those people have peculiar names, peculiar behaviors, and/or abnormal skin or hair color. They don’t really belong here.”
By being dismissive of Kamala Harris’ name and trying to “other” her, Perdue is tapping into one of the favorite tropes of white supremacists: the slogan “You will not replace us.” This chant was heard at the violent 2017 Unite the Right event in Charlottesville.
American white supremacists assert that the Black population of the United States and Central or South American or Muslim immigrants are trying to replace “traditional” white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) culture with their “alien” culture. Such arguments have evolved into “replacement theory,” which is popular with the far-right in several countries.
Nowadays, white Protestant men in positions of power strive to retain that power by asserting that the “they” of this world are women, people of color, Spanish-speakers, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, or anyone other than WASP men. When I was young, often the “they” included Roman Catholics. I remember the ire directed against the presidential candidacy of John F. Kennedy in 1960 for having the temerity to be an Irish Catholic running for the nation’s highest office.
‘Just a Joke’
Perdue’s apologists have said that “he didn’t mean anything by the remark.” We, of course, have listened to this lame “it was just a joke” excuse before. When a “joke” promotes bigotry, it is both racist and not funny.
In case Senator Perdue does not know it, the name David is derived from the Hebrew word meaning beloved. It is associated with King David of the Bible. Perhaps the Senator of Georgia might recall what his namesake wrote in the Book of Psalms (106:3): “How blessed are those who promote justice, and do what is right all the time.”
Surely King David would not approve of the juvenile intentional mispronunciation of someone’s name.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.