I don't know if you've noticed, but it is actually pretty strange for the name Austin to belong to a black girl. Growing up in the mid-eighties I could usually find my name engraved on little keychains and cups, but they were always in the "boy" section, never the one designated for girls. The teachers doing roll call on the first day of class always expected me to be sitting among the group of boys. I usually had to do jumping jacks to get teachers to see me waving on the other side of the room. When giving the librarian my card, I always got the second degree as if stealing someone's library card was my highest aim at 11 years old. If ever I was out and ran into another person named Austin… always a boy (except one time in junior high, in the Appalachian mountains at a corner store- the cashier was female; we celebrated!) But in my day-to-day life, always a boy.
Completely fed up with the frustration of constantly being assumed to be a boy, I asked my parents why they gave me the name Austin. My mother's reply, "Your father and I had a terrible time trying to find a girl's name we both liked. Had you been a boy, you would have been a junior. Easy. But we didn't know what to name a girl. So I suggested my grandfather's last name, Austin. No boys have been born to carry on the name into your generation, so I thought you could be the "last" Austin. We both loved it."
"But why?" I insisted. "Why did you love it?"
Then came the answer that changed everything. "We knew that if you ever applied for a job, wrote a resume, filled out an application for school, people would look at your name and assume you are a white man. We knew you'd be smart and charming enough to make it through anyone's interview. But we had to get you to the interview."
And something clicked. It was true. The people named Austin weren't just boys… they were all white boys. (Even as I grew up and met a couple more female Austins… still white.) Let me tell you, that far from giving me a complex, it all suddenly made sense. People were curious about me, sometimes suspicious of me. People didn't just ask me once if I was "sure" about my name. (what does that even mean?!) People asked me twice or even three times. The surprise on people's faces lasted far longer than other girls with traditional boy names. I finally understood why. When people read my name, they had no expectation of a black girl waving back.
Carrying around a white mans name has created some interesting (and awkward) moments. Most are minor- people who have written emails giving me the title "Mr." feel the need to apologize when they meet me in person. Or on the telephone I typically have to say my name a couple times before the caller realizes they do have the right number. Occasionally, though, its a really jolting experience.
I've applied for a job. I got the interview. Its a group interview. I sit outside the conference room waiting for someone to bring me inside. A person carrying a clipboard emerges. They look at my resume in their hands. They look around the room. They look at the resume in their hands. They look around the room. Tentatively, they ask, "Are you Austin?" I smile and nod, pretending not to notice their confusion. I walk into the conference room. Everyone glances at each other. They look back down at my resume, too. They look at me. I am asked again, "You're Austin?" I keep smiling and nodding. I know what's coming next. "That is such a ______ name." The adjectives vary, but this is always the transition. People need to comment on it to move passed it. Finally the interview begins.
Now this may not sound like a very traumatic experience. It only lasts a couple minutes. To be honest, the hard part only lasts a few seconds. But its excruciating. It happens somewhere between me stepping into the room and the glances at one another and/or my resume. There is a moment, when all of their expectation are undone. A moment when they must decide if it matters that I am not a white male. A moment when they must determine if their expectations will now be different. A moment when they must glance down at my resume once more to see if my accomplishments now mean something different. A moment when they must confirm with one another in silence by admitting, this is not who I expected. That is the trauma.
In my body, I know that we have work to do because a moment of adjustment is needed. A moment to gather oneself. A moment to make sense of everything. Usually the moment passes without incident. Usually my parents are correct, and my charisma dismisses any awkwardness from the room. But not always.
Occasionally there is a presence who simply cannot reconcile that I am not the white male authority that was expected. Occasionally, I find myself responding to questions like, "So who is really in charge here?" Occasionally, it becomes inconceivable that the lesson I taught is as good, as thorough, as meaningful as it would have been if only my name matched the expectations of my body. Occasionally, people aren't entirely sure what to do with me- so they leave the room, or hang up the phone, or ask me for an explanation. How? Why? I think some people genuinely feel deceived.
When I first learned to write my name, I had no idea it would be so subversive. I had no idea it carried meaning, expectations. I had no idea it was tied to race or gender- how others would perceive me. I had no idea. But I experience the "surprise and wonder" pretty regularly.
Though most of this post has focused singularly on me, my point is actually for all women of color. My experience of being sized up next to my white counterparts, is obvious and sometimes over the top, but in a more subtle way, I think many women of color who spend the bulk of their time navigating white evangelical culture experience this.
Glances back and forth between white colleagues after voicing an opinion. Or worse, being "translated" after speaking our piece.
Checking and double checking our professional history, "Did you really…?"
Demanding to know how we got here, wherever here is.
The awkward apologies when incorrect assumptions have been made about our lives.
Always wondering if we are being sized up based solely on our contributions or only in relationship to our white counterparts.
Desperately trying to figure out what people expect when we show up.
My name is Austin, so I notice the shifting in the seats, the long pauses, the looks of curiosity. But this is not my story alone. It is one grain of sand in the experience of being a "colored girl" and Ms. Ntozanke Shange's words still ring with truth in my soul, "bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma / i have not conquered yet"