When I was fourteen, I was told that my name sounded ‘too black’ and that it didn’t match my personality. When I was 16, I heard it again. I told a man my name after we had been talking for a bit, and he looked back at me in surprise, as if he had just heard the most incredulous news of a lifetime. He told me my name sounded “a little too nigger” and it didn’t match the person I am. For them, I was too white for a black girl. And, apparently, Denisha is a black girl name. But it wasn’t the fact that they pointed out that my name ‘sounded’ black, what really struck me is that they had an entire personality in mind for my name, before getting to know me.
I attempted to tell them that my name is a variant of my lola’s name, my grandmother in the Philippines. But that didn’t matter. I was an Oreo, as they called me. I looked black, but I was really white–whatever that means. To me, it meant that my identity had been reduced to a cookie, a simple snack treat that you could buy at the local store. From then, I became a bit insecure about my name. Would they be able to pronounce it in the classes I was in? Would they make another comment about my name? It was my identity, and I didn’t want it.
I tried to go by Denise as a nickname, but it failed miserably. It wasn’t me. But I was sure that that’s what people would call me–I tried to introduce myself in that way, and I suppose it worked, for a time. Until I sat in an intercultural communication class, and my professor was talking about identity. He mentioned how people–often minorities–feel the need to give up part of their identity or change who they are in order to fit in with the larger majority crowd, whoever that may be, depending on the environment. I wondered about his words and let it register in my brain. I wasn’t calling myself Denise because I genuinely wanted it to be my nickname, I called myself Denise because, in some way, I became ashamed of my name. I am not a Denise.
I was 18 when a friend of mine looked at me with honest eyes, and said, “You know, you’re one of the nicest black women I know.” Not one of the nicest women, one of the nicest black women. The distinction struck me. Did I need a separate type of nicety ascribed to me? Apparently, I was nice…for a black girl. And that same person told me that he didn’t think that we would become friends, because he saw my name on Facebook in our college’s Facebook group for our grade (class of 2016), and automatically assumed the worst about my personality, that I was “ghetto” or “ratchet.” Whatever that means.
Some days, I straighten my hair. Other days, I curl it. And I don’t mind if people touch my hair, really, I don’t. But it’s the questions. Some days, I get asked if I wear a weave. I don’t. Other days I just get asked if my hair is real. It is. Once, I was told that my hair “felt soft, but also felt black.” Another time, somebody even asked me to pull out a piece of my hair because he didn’t believe that it was all natural. The sad part was that I did it. I pulled one out. “You’ve got good hair,” they would tell me. “For a black girl.”
Subtly, it seems that we are told that black is lesser or some completely different category. Black means ‘ghetto.’ Black means ‘nappy.’ I get told my ‘black is beautiful,’ but then I look around society and think about the conversations that I have, and it seems like society says the opposite. When I was 19, I was told by another man that I would be gorgeous if I were a shade lighter. How I looked at that moment wasn’t attractive to him. I suppose I just looked alright, for a black girl. It was as if my beauty was being compared to some standard that I wasn’t aware of. For some time, I believed him. Because after that, I continually met men, often times black themselves, who would say that they didn’t want to date a black woman, and when I would ask why, they would look at me as if it were obvious.
When I got upset, they would say to each other, “oh, the black side of her is coming out.” And I wondered. Was that it? Because I wasn’t a docile, quaint woman? As if black women are the only ones who get angry? No, apparently there was a separate type of anger that I didn’t understand. I wasn’t sure of how to end this article. An inspiring word, something to empower all black women–or just people in general–about the importance of speaking up about this and being more bold about conversations about race? Or perhaps a harsh word about the state of our society, about the ignorance that exists?
No. I’m not qualified for that. I have no solution or any malicious words. All I have are these experiences. But I will say this. As I was writing this, a friend of mine asked me why I was writing this. That the things that people say are probably in jest, it’s all in good fun, that I was taking this too seriously–nothing mean is really meant by it. And I recalled something that intercultural communication professor said: that if we aren’t condemning it, we are condoning it. I am silently acknowledging that I, personally, am perfectly fine with these statements being said to me. Perhaps this article isn’t really condemning anything, since I have offered no solution. All I can say is that joke or not, it’s not okay. Jokes are usually wrapped in some something that we subconsciously believe to be true.
So you know, maybe I am taking this too seriously. But maybe I’m not. Maybe just speaking up about our experiences is the first step. That acknowledging that these things happen and saying that we aren’t okay with it if we really are not okay with it. And that goes across all races, cultures, ethnicities, etc. Telling these stories is important. We hear over and over again what the power of sharing our stories can do for someone. And respect is a minimal. And I’m still learning this too. And I looked at him and told him that that–that everything he had just said to me…that is why I’m writing this.