What’s in a name? The concepts of nicknames and name-calling have been recurring themes for me over the last few weeks. Most people would say that nicknames and name-calling are two different things. However, my emotional response to each is pretty similar.
As a mixed race woman of color, I have encountered both blatant name-calling and it’s slightly sweeter cousin, nicknames. Both have left me feeling awkward and singled out.
While, I’ve mostly been able to ignore names like “white girl”, “proper”, “prissy”, “saditty”, “bougie”, “mocha”, “Milano” “mutt”, “caramel”, and “confused”, there have been a couple of instances of name-calling that deeply affected me.
One name in particular has stuck with me. And the moment, in which I first heard this term, is burned into my memory. OREO.
It was summer. I had to have been about 10. I was living with my grandmother and her church decided to send two kids off to a special Christian retreat. They selected an older boy and me. I knew him fairly well. He’d always been a member of my grandmother’s church and I saw him every time I stayed with her. I thought he was one of the coolest kids around and I liked his whole family.
But this retreat would shake that up completely. We were two of the few children of color present that week.
On the last day of the retreat he and I stood on the curb waiting for our bus to come and take us back home. I was talking about something mindless, when it happened. Seemingly out of nowhere, he called me an “Oreo”. I stopped mid-sentence, utterly confused, because I had never heard that term before. And I asked him what it meant.
“You’re Black on the outside, White on the inside.”
::cue ton of bricks::
I was absolutely stunned! But more than that I was hurt. For the first time, name-calling felt personal. Here I was, standing with the only other Black kid I had spoken to all week and he just told me I was White. I didn’t know how to process this. It could have been because during that same retreat a conversation with my White roommate made me realize that I didn’t identify with her White experience. And now in this moment, I was realizing that I didn’t identify with his experience either.
Imagine, going through life just being who you are, and suddenly, one day, all of these differences become clear. You start to realize you are different. You start to realize that people see you a certain way. You start to notice how brown your skin really is. And then a moment later, someone calls you a name. A name that aligns you with the two things you just realized you can’t identify with. You realize that a person you thought was a friend has secretly been categorizing you. You’ve been shoved into a box against your will and now you’re trapped. All because of a name.
So what’s in a name? For a young girl trying to navigate through the minefields of people’s expectations…EVERYTHING.