When I was a little Black kid growing up in a very traditional Black transclass community in Durham, NC, and in my grandmother’s working class, Black community in West Southern Pines, NC, about 75 miles down US 1, one of the worst things you could do was to “call someone out of their name.” This had a much longer history than I or my playmates appreciated at the time, as all we knew is that you call people by the names their families had given them or nicknamed them. All the adults were Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. This was important because the older generation was responding to a harrowing echo of slavocracy and then rampant racism that issued in the idea that a grown man, if Black, was “boy” or “uncle.” Grown Black women were “girl” or “auntie.” And it didn’t take much for the White folks who benefitted from the presence of Black labor and skills to make up names for the folks who cooked their food, washed their clothes, drove their cars, tended to their children. My grandmother, a master cook, was Nora, but her White employers of decades insisted her name was “Nola” and so the renaming, without permission, went.
You see, being called out of one’s name is a power move tinged with disrespect that fosters an imposed invisibility where individuals and/or groups do not have to be genuinely known, respected, or understood. We opt for the destructive tactic of defining folk by the stereotypes we imagine them to be and then turn that stereotype into “fact” by years-long repetition. Who others are is defined by an imagination that has the power to name its own conception of the proper order of the universe…usurping God’s power. And even more, that imagination is no longer accountable to what it takes to build a community, let alone a society.
When Michigan state senator Mallory McMorrow took to the senate floor last April to call out a colleague who had called her a groomer, pedophile, and wanting White children to feel bad about themselves—the latter because she supports equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives in schools and our larger society—I was speechless. McMorrow did so, in her words, as a “straight, White, Christian, married, suburban mom” who refused to be called out of her name. I also began to realize that I was hearing the old Black folk who raised me insisting that you must tell the truth about another person or group. As I sat at my desk, listening to McMorrow, I both smiled and choked up because she reminded me of the importance of telling the truth about others. To take the time to get to know people. To widen the circle. To call folks by their names.
Emilie M. Townes
Dean and Distinguished Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society