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  • Helms Jarrell

Fail Better Soon: Call me by my name

I feel like I've shared this before, but it is seared into my mind and thus it gets shared again. In 6th or 7th grade, my lifelong church friend asked me to call her by a different name. For the 12 years I'd known her, she'd gone by a double name. After twelve long formative comfortable years, she had the gall to ask us to only call her by her first name instead of her first and middle together. My 12 year old self could not take it. I thought to myself, How could she change her identity like that? I knew her by "dadadee". There was no way I could start calling her "dada." And so, I chose not to make the shift. Our friendship was strained. By the end of 10th grade, our friendship vaporized completely.


Recently, I attended a Gender Equity Training session facilitated by the Gender Equity Team of Alternate ROOTS. In it, Spirit McIntyre was one of the trainers. In a conversation about the use of pronouns and TGNCNBI2-S affirming language, Spirit gave a really helpful analogy. [But first, let me unpack that acronym (which I am still learning to memorize): Transgender, Nonconforming, Nonbinary, Intersex, Two Spirit. And let me mention here that I had to pause to make sure I was writing the words correctly: do I use a hyphen or not?] Spirit reminded us of how we care for babies. When the baby cries, we check to see what is the matter. If the baby tells us in baby-like ways that it needs to be held differently, changed, or fed, we do what the baby asks of us. And if we get it wrong, we listen again and try again. Spirit suggested that when folks tell you they need you to call them by a different name, acknowledge them in a different way, or think about things in a new way, we need to respond with what they ask of us.


I didn't do that with my 7th grade friend. I got caught up in how her name change was (supposedly) effecting me. It was too hard to change my habits, I thought. Her name change made me question myself. I would have to practice saying a new name, listen to her story about the name shift, accept that she is changing. I would have to consider whether I was changing. I would have to stop and say sorry when I mistakenly said the wrong name. How could she ask me to do something so challenging? The ask seemed too hard, so I chose not to do what she asked.


A while back, a college and seminary friend came out as transgender. In the values/philosophy way, I was affirming and accepting. Even though affirming, I was still challenged. What do I do with the name I knew? How will I change my habits to the new name? I talked with folks around me, "When I talk about the person in the past, do I use the gender I knew or the gender I know now, the old name or the new one?" I told myself, "Well, they introduced themselves to you using this particular pronoun and name at a particular time, so when you're talking about that time, you'll use those pronouns and that name. When you're talking about the present, you'll use the words they request now." My brain was making new pathways and practicing new thinking, but in the process, I still used the old pronouns and old name.


Nope. Wrong. Call the person by the name and pronouns they ask you to call them. Why did I do that? Well, when changes come our way, we can't help but have some inner thoughts and turmoil about adjustments and growth. It is natural to take time to adjust and to carry tension in the adjustments. The thing is, I can get so caught up in my own inner turmoil, the challenge my brain is requiring of me, that center myself and my own adjustments. I get so caught up in my own the struggles I am having, that I name them (loudly), resist them (using old words when I shouldn't), and push back (give excuses for why I am struggling).


What I'm learning is that I can center myself. There is room in my life to center my own self. There's plenty of room for that in my journal, in reflection time, and in my personal spaces. AND I need to move from primarily centering myself to primarily centering the other person(s). I especially need to do this in interpersonal and public spheres. When we center the folks who have long been uncentered, everyone becomes more free. [and this takes practice.]


Centering is a word everyone's using so much right now that it is a little tricky to know what it means. In the Living Justice Practicum group, Ayanna Johnson Watkins, Executive Director of Micah Memphis, helped me to synthesize some thoughts. Centering someone, does not necessarily mean favoritism or preferring someone. It is a methadology that acknowledges that if you are thinking about or working on a social justice issue, learn from and study the experiences of the persons most impacted and harmed by the issue. When you do that, you learn all of the injustices and oppressions that are happening and you are better able to address them.


Ayanna gave a great example. Let's say we're trying to address women's healthcare. If we studied (centered) white women's experience of the health care system, we would find out a lot of good information. If we studied (centered) Black women's experience of the health care system, we would learn the same information PLUS a lot more about disparities, prejudice, and treatment. Solving for those issues will solve, more holistically, everyone's issues.


My "things need to be fair" brain resisted centering folks when it seemed to me that we were centering just for the sake of centering, as if we are playing favorites. What Ayanna explained helped me to realize that this is not about favorites at all. It is about healing and liberation.




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