Know My Name
After a long day at work, I came home and turned on an episode of The View, and Elaine Welteroth, former Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief, was the special guest. During her interview, she mentioned her annoyance when being misidentified with other black women throughout her career, even while holding prominent positions, and even when they looked nothing alike. I gasped and hit rewind. I related so deeply because I could easily recount my own similar experiences.
I’ve often been one of the few (or the only) black women at work and throughout my education. Even though I’ve had many great experiences throughout my career, being one of the only black women in my workplace has been isolating and, at times, filled with microaggressions.
The most hurtful microaggressions concerned my name. As silly as it sounds, I didn’t realize how important my name was to my identity until people struggled to learn it or misidentified me as another black girl at work or school.
Misidentification Is A Microagression
When I started a new job, I was confused by how often I was called by the name of one of the only other black girls in the office; let’s call her “Julie.” During my first few months, I was regularly greeted by her name with enthusiasm. Coworkers would reference the times they thought they’d seen me, or the times we’d spent together when it had actually been Julie.
As the months went on, Julie and I would text each other jokingly whenever this happened. It was humorous, but something about it started to get under my skin.
At first, it didn’t bother me and I tried my best to rationalize it because the people mistaking me for her and vice versa weren’t mean or ill-intentioned. I’d think, “Well, we’re both around the same height and both have braids, sometimes” or “Well, we’re both black and have similar interests.” As the months continued, I could feel the heat simmering in my stomach with a mix of disappointment and sadness each time there was a slip-up, so I had to dig deeper into my emotions and investigate why it was so hurtful instead of gaslighting myself into not caring.
True Inclusion Celebrates Individuality
When I thought about it and did some research, I found that this happens a lot to POC in the workplace, just like Elaine Welteroth had mentioned. The misidentification is harmful because it’s hard to feel completely welcome in a space or part of a community when people don’t know the difference between you and another person of your race.
Even when people are well-intentioned and kind, it’s still hurtful. Misidentification makes me feel invisible. I can’t help but wonder, “Do they even know who I am?” Each name mix-up is a reminder that, by some, I’m not seen as an individual. It’s almost as if members of a minority group are considered a monolith, without the privilege of having individuality even though we have our own identities and distinct features. We’re seen as one, the token, and if there’s more than one—there’s confusion.
Correcting Is A Form Of Self-Advocacy
I used to be fearful of informing someone when they’d mistaken my name, but now I say something—with compassion, of course. I let them know, “My name is Leah,” or “You may be thinking of Julie, she’s a very sweet girl,” and keep the conversation moving along. This is usually followed by an “Oh my god, I messed up” look on the person’s face, but I allow them to sit in their discomfort and remind myself it isn’t rude to correct someone when they call you by the wrong name. Also, I no longer feel guilty about advocating for myself and the community I belong to. Hopefully, this nudge will help others think more carefully about how to create an inclusive space in the future and unpack unconscious biases.
Creating an inclusive space starts with getting to know the people around you, and that means getting to know their name. When you meet someone with an “ethnic”-sounding name, don’t insist on shortening it for your comfort. Take the time to practice the pronunciation, because it can mean a lot to someone who’s encountered judgment about their name their entire life. When a new person of color comes into the office or is in a predominantly white space, get to know them as an individual and not as a token.
When people of color are given the same right to their individuality, with that comfort, they can grow and blossom.