I let my eighth grade English teacher call me Shannon for weeks. In fact, I can’t recall me being the one who finally corrected her. I don’t remember who it was, but I suppose I owe them a debt. I could’ve been Shannon the whole year, or at least about an hour each school day.
I generally liked school (especially English, actually). But I hated the first day, and any days there were substitute teachers, or I had to meet new staff. Outside of school, it was anywhere someone would have to call out names in a crowded room. My name is Shawnta (shaun-TAY), and it’s mispronounced almost as often as it’s misspelled. A name like this has a real chicken-and-egg quality. Even after all these years, it’s hard to say which is more grating: Having someone hear your name first and inevitably spelling it wrong, or seeing it in writing first and mangling the pronunciation. Either way, it always felt like some sort of unfounded rejection.
I was in a perpetual cycle of rerunning the learning curve every time I interacted with someone new. About once every few years, I’d encounter some amazing individual who said my name correctly right off the bat, and I’d leap to attention with a huge smile and undying gratitude. But for the most part, it was one awkward introduction after another.
Until… Senior year of high school. A couple of friends started to call me Shawn. I was kind of surprised I never thought of it myself. I’d had my fair share of nicknames from family and friends: Ta (TAY); Ta-Ta (TAY-TAY); Tigger; Tiggy; Half-Pint; Peanut Butter; and Shwa (SHWAH). Some were cute, some a bit odd. I didn’t mind any of them really. But, Shawn? Shawn was easy.
Shawn was still a nickname, though. I was still Shawnta, first and foremost. But then something happened. I took a Diversity & Inclusion class in college and learned about one of many studies, where similar resumes were sent to companies with one major difference: The name at the top was either stereotypically white, or more commonly heard in Black and Brown communities. These studies found that people whose names signaled a non-white ethnicity were contacted significantly less for interviews than their Anglo counterparts. And to a college student who was just about a year away from trying to find her first really-real-in-my-field-of-study-type job, learning this was terrifying.
And just like that, I switched to introducing myself as Shawn to anyone and everyone. When someone mispronounced Shawnta, instead of telling them the actual pronunciation, I would say, “Just call me Shawn.” Shawn was on my resumes, my email, my desk plate, my business cards – even my first books, my website, and my social accounts.
Then, some 15 years later, I realized I was doing a disservice to every other person out there with a “different” name. Instead of exposing the children I was working with to the full breadth of my diversity, I was limiting them to only what they could see — things I couldn’t hide (or worse yet, didn’t choose to). And in a word, that sucked. It felt antithetical to everything I was trying to do with my books. So with that, Shawnta was back.
I changed it all. The email, the social accounts, the books. I still use Shawn here and there. I don’t mind it. It’s still easy. It’s just been relegated mostly to the long list of nicknames certain people have for me. But Shawnta is front and center once again. Shawnta means something like it never did before. I’m empowered by it. I own it. Finally.
That said, I still don’t always correct people. For some reason, I have no trouble correcting strangers, but I’ve yet to get comfortable correcting people I know. People I care about. I think I’m worried I’m going to hurt their feelings. Now the situation has become something like out of a television show, where it’s all gone on too long, and I’m growing increasingly uncomfortable waiting to see what happens when the jig is up. Though I am so much more confident now than I once was, I still struggle to live my best life sometimes.
So, to those who I’ve been letting say Shaun-TAH and the like without correction, please know: It’s not you; it’s me. And to everyone, I promise to do better. I never realized the happy pang of recognition and acceptance I feel when someone says my name — my first name, in full: Shawnta! I feel seen in the absolute best way. I can only hope that letting others see more of the real me helps them bring out more of their true selves, too.
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