As a Black, queer, fat woman, I’m constantly aware of how I navigate most spaces. I’m constantly determining whether I can talk about my girlfriend. I’m constantly wondering whether I can eat what and how I want. And I’m constantly aware of how I’m speaking, from my tone to the words that I’m saying.
Sometimes, these concerns come from a place of determining my safety. One wrong admission can put me in harm’s way of being attacked, physically or verbally. But at other times, these concerns come from wanting to avoid people projecting stereotypes onto me.
If I speak too loudly, I’m a “loud, angry Black woman.” If I say I have a girlfriend and three cats, I’m “one of those U-Hauling lesbians.” If I eat a plate full of fried foods, I’m a “lazy fat person who doesn’t care about my body or health.”
I try to convince myself that, if I navigate certain spaces cautiously, I can avoid those stereotypes as much as possible. However, no matter how I navigate spaces, I can’t prevent people’s assumptions.
My full first name is Shawnquita. However, all of my life, I’ve gone by Quita, except for the fourth grade. On the first day of school, my third-period teacher, Mrs. M, began to call the roll. When she got to my name, she said, “S. Tinsley.”
This approach wasn’t unfamiliar to me. Many teachers, instead of stumbling over the syllables in my first name, would just say my first initial and last name. And I had my standard response: “It’s Shawn-qui-ta, but you can call me Quita.” Mostly, teachers would smile at me, repeat my name, and then make a note on their student lists.
However, Mrs. M didn’t. She replied, “How about I call you Shawn.”
As a ten-year-old kid, I didn’t know or understand what respectability politics were or how they intersected with stereotypes. All I knew was that my full name was too Black and Mrs. M didn’t want to call me by my clearly ethnic nickname. So I said “Okay,” and was called Shawn the entire school year by my teacher.
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I despised my ethnic name. First, literally no one called me the name. Everyone I knew called me Quita. I mostly only had to interact with the name when filling out forms or at doctor’s appointments. And second, even as a child, I knew and understood that my name was a Black name. It was long, unique, and difficult.
But I was a child, without any tools or language to understand what I felt and was experiencing when it came to my name. So I just internalized anti-black beliefs around my name and deep levels of shame that my name was so ghetto.
What I experienced wasn’t a unique situation. It’s something that many people of color with “unique” names experience. For example, 11-year-old actress and Academy Award nomimee Quvenzhanè Wallis has experienced similar encounters. In 2013, on the Oscars red carpet, a reporter told her, “I’m calling you Annie now.” The then 9-year-old little girl replied to her saying, “My name is not Annie. It’s Quvenzhanè.
Like my teacher, this reporter made the choice to ignore her name and replace it with a more respectable name. While I’m so happy that Quvenzhanè had the courage and knowledge to correct this reporter, she shouldn’t have had to correct her. The issue shouldn’t be something that she already knows how to navigate with grace, poise, and wit at the age of nine.
Now, I know and understand that my teacher — and others like her — were and are acting out of respectability politics based on racist and anti-black stereotypes. Shawn was an acceptable and normal name, so that’s what she chose to call me against my wishes. I also now know and understand how beautiful my given name is. I still choose to go by Quita, but it’s not from a place of shame or anti-blackness. And I also realize that even with the name Quita, people recognize that it’s different and make assumptions about me based on it.
Many times, when I introduce myself as Quita, I’m asked: “What does it mean?” “Is it a different language?” “Who named you and why did they pick that?” As a Black person with a unique name, I obviously know the etymology of my name. And because my name is unique, it has to have a meaning with ties to another language. But it’s not only the assumptions about my name that bother me. It’s also the stereotypes about my personality based on my name.
With a name like Quita, I’m obviously sassy. I have to be the sassy loud Black woman who is the life of the party when, in reality, I am an extroverted introvert. While I can be — and, many times, have to be — extroverted, I’m a quiet and reserved person who is very awkward in social situations. Even though I try to push back on the stereotype, I sometimes find myself feeling that I have to play up the sassy loud Black woman role when in social situations with friends.
A couple of years ago, a friend — a white, cisgender, gay man — invited my girlfriend and me to his friend’s holiday party. When this friend and I are together, we are loud, silly, sassy, and full of Southern quips. However, in this intimate get-together full of strangers, I was super quiet and very observant at first, partially because I was the only Black person there.
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My friend wasn’t having it. He wanted me to be sassy and fun, but I just felt like a token. My choices were to call it out and create an awkward tension or play it up and not ruin a holiday party.
I chose the latter.
Situations like this one are complex. While I know I’m playing into a stereotype, sometimes my behavior can be truly reflective of how I’m feeling in that moment. By constantly wanting to push back on the stereotype, I can inadvertently reinforce the idea that, if this behavior is displayed by a Black woman, she’s being stereotypical and something is wrong with her behavior. And that is not true. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Black women being sassy, loud, or the life of the party. The problem is when that is the only expected behavior of Black women.
I constantly have to remind myself that I can’t police my tone or behavior based on the ways that others may typecast me. If people place stereotypes on me, those people are the problem, not me. I have to unapologetically be myself. Whether that’s unapologetically femme, queer, fat, or Black, I have to be Quita.
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