One of the best ways to respect somebody is to honor how they self-define. For example, somebody who looks to you like a man wishes to be addressed as “she” and referred to as a woman. The right thing to do is to honor that request, and use the word “she” to refer to her, even if it may take some getting used to. Or a person from Ecuador may want to be known as Ecuadorian, or “Latino,” as opposed to “South American,” or “Hispanic.” Well, then, Ecuadorian and Latino is what they are, and not South American or Hispanic, even though Ecuador is in South America and many might call people from Ecuador “Hispanic” because Spanish is the most spoken language there. That doesn’t matter–it’s all about honoring how a person self-identifies.
We dishonor people by calling them out of their name all the time without even realizing it. We have a tendency to associate the actions a person takes with who they are. So, for example, if Mario has the tendency to get nervous fairly often, people might say “Mario is a nervous wreck” or “Mario is a hypochondriac.” We do this because it helps us remember people and tells us how to orient to them. With Mario, for example, we will orient to him by trying to be calm and not getting him too worked up, because “he is a nervous wreck,” as we have already decided. But would Mario choose to call himself a nervous wreck? Even if he did, would this be a positive, self-affirming label? Possibly, if he was joking around, but otherwise unlikely.
Naturally, this also means not affixing names or labels to somebody that they reject. One man named Jorge (usually pronounced “HOR-hay”) once wanted to be called “George,” but still spelled his name J-O-R-G-E. he was challenged by a fellow Spanish speaker who took mild offense to this guy “hiding his Hispanic heritage,” and said to him “no, your name is obviously Jorge, not George.” In addition, this perceived conflict between the spelling of his name and the way he wanted it pronounced caused confusion when writing down his name. But guess what? He wanted his name to be pronounced like “George,” and that’s all that matters! No arguments necessary. If he doesn’t feel like flaunting his Hispanic background right away, that’s his choice and nobody else’s. The story ends with people playfully calling him “George with a J” as a way of honoring both the pronunciation and the spelling of his name and remembering it… a good solution indeed!
Then there’s the young man I met who is very dark-skinned, from Haiti. He identifies as Haitian and black, but not “African-American,” because he has never been to Africa and does not identify as African or American, not being a citizen of the U.S. I told him, “to me, you are black and Haitian, then, and not African-American,” and it was all good.
If this sounds weird, just remember a time when you were known for something you wished weren’t the case. You’d definitely respect the person who addressed you as you wished to be addressed, right? Honoring somebody’s self-identity is in the end about understanding them, and it’s an absolutely horrible feeling to be misunderstood. It may not seem like much, but addressing somebody the way they want to be addressed is actually an awesome way to put out loving, compassionate vibrations to others.
Whenever I meet someone with a name that is from a different culture than my own (or perhaps hard to pronounce), I make the best effort I can to pronounce their name exactly as it is supposed to be said. Don’t you hate it when people mispronounce your name or the name of someone you love? This stuff is a lot more important than “just a name.” It’s your identity, and those who show a universal respect for how others around them choose to identify are sending affirming, positive messages out to everyone.
Now I can see some people saying, “but then people will call themselves anything, and we won’t know who is what.” I would respond to this by saying that most people do not choose to be complicated; in fact, we are constantly facing pressures to fit neatly into categories and simplify. But there is also the reality that everyone is different, and we often don’t fit these categories well. In fact, it’s when somebody can see past the simple categories and further understand and accept us even when we don’t fit that we feel truly understood.
There are a very few circumstances in which one person’s autonomy of identity does indeed encroach on another’s. The best-known example to me is the use of the word “nigger” in urban American culture—one of the sharpest, ugliest racial insults out there, yet it is often employed as a neutral term or even a term of endearment in certain cases. Highly-charged labels and identities like this often come with all kinds of contextual conditions: who can use the term, when it is appropriate/inappropriate, what kind of tone to use when saying it, etc. It’s thus best not to use terms like these; too high a risk, even when one person likes it, that another will take serious offense, plus in the case of the N-word there really is no circumstance when this word must be used and no other word can make the same point—other than as a vicious slur.
These examples are actually pretty rare in number—they just stick with us because they are so memorably controversial. They are not an excuse to deny somebody the right to be called as they wish, whether it is their name, their background, their culture, their preferences/orientation, or anything else about them. Positive people always do their best to honor how somebody wishes to be described. And you’ll be able to know much more about a person and how to win their trust and acceptance of you if you just listen closely to them, without judgment of what they may say or do.