American showman P T Barnum once famously said: “I don’t give a damn what you say about me as long as you spell my name right.”
My name is Tahlea (or Tali) Aualiitia and as someone who — through unsolicited commentary — has always been told how “different” and “difficult” my name is, this quote has always resonated with me.
In fact, the last person I had to correct for the misspelling of my name was someone from my own employer, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
I was invited to join a panel on representation in pop culture by the ABC News Channel earlier this month, and because the name super (the strap with my name at the bottom of the screen) was added during production, I wasn’t aware my name was spelled incorrectly until after the interview had finished and I was informed by my family and friends.
Typos happen and I understand how a slip of the finger on the keyboard turned my surname from Aualiitia into Auakiitia.
But while it was the first time I had done a TV interview, it wasn’t the first time I had seen my name spelled wrong in the media.
Just a month ago, my name was spelled incorrectly by a producer in my own department, the Asia Pacific Newsroom.
It was pretty disappointing especially given it was a Pacific story from my own newsroom.
Now, I want to be clear that in both instances my colleagues reached out and apologised and I hold no ill feelings towards them, but these small errors can have big impacts among communities that often don’t see themselves reflected in the media.
I’m not alone in having my name spelled wrong — my mum’s Italian maiden name, Boccuccia, has been misspelled on her Australian birth certificate.
However this is not just about the spelling of my name; I’ve also been told by a radio presenter I pronounce my own name wrong, and I’ve heard my name laughed at on a Mamamia podcast.
I immediately emailed Mamamia, and the presenter sincerely apologised for offending me.
I’m very proud of my Samoan name, so in early June when I heard Erin Molan on 2GB radio say “hooka looka mooka hooka fooka” in a chat about the pronunciation of Pacific names, I was so angry that I took to Twitter to call her out for her lack of cultural respect.
While Ms Molan did not reply to me, she did release a statement saying her remarks were “clumsy and inappropriate”, and “an attempt to reference a story that’s been told multiple times on air”.
I received many messages in response to my tweets — some thanked me for speaking out, some predictably called me a racist name or a snowflake, and some said that’s what I should expect from Australian commercial media.
So when my employer, the ABC, spelled my name wrong when I appeared on national TV less than a week later, I knew I had to call them out in the same public way I had called out Ms Molan.
Immediately, people started sharing their stories with me of having their own “different” names misspelled, mispronounced or laughed at by the Australian media.
The next morning I sent an email to my manager asking to write this piece.
‘A big target hanging around my neck’
It’s no coincidence I’m speaking up about this during the latest wave of the Black Lives Matter movement.
It’s hard to explain what racism feels like to someone who has never experienced it.
For me, it feels like walking around with a big target hanging around my neck.
You don’t know where the next attack — verbal, physical or systemic — might come from, and lived experience means you know it has to do with the colour of your skin.
And when you’re on a public platform like national TV or social media, it feels like that target triples in size.
Andrew Jakubowicz, an online racism expert at the University of Technology Sydney, last year told The New Daily that due to oversights in Australian law, “Australia has been for some time the best place in the liberal democratic West to be an online racist.”
I’ve seen so many guests on TV panel shows like the ABC’s The Drum and Channel 10’s The Project receive racial abuse on social media when they didn’t even talk about race on the show.
Speaking from experience, people of colour (POC) who talk about race in the media usually prepare themselves mentally for racist messages they are likely to receive on their social media accounts after their interview is broadcast or published.
While I’ve personally received some horrible messages, it has never required police intervention, unlike what recently happened to Sudanese-Australian lawyer and human rights advocate Nyadol Nyuon.
After Ms Nyuon appeared on the ABC’s Q+A program recently, the South Australian police had to launch an internal investigation after a staff member sent her racist and abusive messages on Facebook.
When I reached out to Ms Nyuon asking if I could include her experience in this piece, because I didn’t want to expose her to more racist trolling, she warned me to be careful in case this article drew the same negative comments she received.
Media not prepared for threats to POC staff
I work in the ABC’s Asia Pacific Newsroom and a couple of months ago I asked what measures were in place at the ABC to support POC talent after a media interview.
My manager had to seek advice from Kevin Nguyen, a digital forensics reporter at the ABC and the digital director of Media Diversity Australia, who said despite an increasing number of threats to POC talent and journalists — especially women and POC journalists — very few media organisations had a considered and evidence-backed proactive response to potential threats.
This is why getting our names right matters. If we’re not being cared for at a base level, then what hope do we have in tackling the bigger, more complex race issues at hand?
Despite the 2016 census showing that 49 per cent of all Australians were either born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas, and more than 300 languages (including Indigenous languages) are spoken in Australian homes, research from Deakin University in 2019 found that more than a third of Australian media articles reflected negative views of minority communities.
It’s widely acknowledged that cultural and linguistically diverse communities in Australia are underrepresented in the media and often misrepresented in the news, so the media now need to regain their trust.
There are countless times where the POC talent I’ve met have audibly exhaled in relief when they saw that me, a brown woman, was the one interviewing them.
The ABC’s diversity action plan already seeks to better reflect the diversity of the Australian community — it includes setting goals around the make-up of the ABC workforce, and increasing content that includes more diverse voices (this includes gender, disability and socio-economic diversity too).
And finally, to all the people with “different” names — names that have been laughed at, names people have refused to learn, names people rename for their own ease — correct the people who misspell them.
The correct spelling of our names is not just a media issue, it’s an issue across all organisations.
Perhaps take inspiration from Maori-Australian artist Kira Puru who wrote a clause in her contract stating that her appearance fee doubles if they misspell her name, after two Australian music festivals spelled her name wrong in promotion material in 2018.
We need to speak our names with the same pride we speak of them when we are among our own community.
As actress Uzoamaka Aduba’s mum said: “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky then they can learn to say your name too.”