I’ve gone by many names in my lifetime: Mercedes, Sadie, Major, Jean. I first changed my name when I was adopted, and I’m sure I’ll change it again when I’m married.
Working in student affairs and being a Black woman, I’ve noticed that names are extremely important in recognizing a person for who they are in a specific setting and creating a safe space for them.
As a child, if someone called me Mercedes, they likely were a teacher or an unfamiliar adult. That meant I needed to be polite, quiet, unopinionated, and agreeable. If I was called Sadie, I was around friends and family and I could let my guard down. I could speak my mind without being judged, and I felt safe. In college I went by Major, and this was when I was truly the most confident version of myself. I had recreated who I was and aligned that with the person I wanted to be.
These moments permit me to empathize with the peers and students I have met who have transitioned and renamed themselves. Their chosen name is not only a reinvention of themselves but a call to action for others to see them as they want to be seen and ensure that they are welcomed and respected in a space.
When living in New York, I never saw a problem with my first name, but as I applied for professional positions in other states, I became concerned that my name may read too ethnic, and employers may disregard my application before ever seeing my qualifications. This is not an unusual concern for Black Americans or immigrants. My college roommate from Liberia was given the name Susan as to make her more hirable in America. Thus, I started to use my middle name, Jean, on some job applications.
The struggles I have had to feel safe in the spaces I occupy have reminded me how important it is to use my privilege as a figure of authority in the field of Education, and call students by their preferred name. Details like using proper pronunciation, remembering a nickname, and not using a trans student’s deadname are necessary in creating a safe zone and sense of ally-ship. It is in these safe zones that our students can become the person they want to be.
Mercedes J. Major-Brunson