Name-calling in the Playground
Another week another contribution! This week we are very fortunate to have a contribution from Cee of 'Hey is That Me?'. We have been liking her posts on insta and enjoying her blog for a few months now, so it was an absolute treat when Cee responded to our call out for contributions for our Topic Of The Month section (find out more here). This months theme is 'Back to School' (if you want to submit something, a picture, story, poem you still have time!! firstname.lastname@example.org). Any how back to Cee, we love her comical take on life and enjoy the snippets of life she shares via her blog. We also had the absolute pleasure of meeting her at our first brunch and can honestly say that she is even better IRL!
When I was a kid, every single black adult was called either ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’, whether they were related to me or not. Non-black adults were an anomaly (unless they were married to a black auntie or uncle), so I usually avoided calling them by their name or title. But, when it was necessary to ask one of them a question, I would simply stand directly in front of them and give good eye contact, so there could be no confusion who I was talking to. I knew who my real aunties and uncles were (I mean blood relatives), but it must have been super-confusing for friends of mine who did not have the West African background that I did. To them, I was related to every single black adult I knew. In our culture, it is a mark of respect. Once an individual reaches adulthood, those who are younger must address that adult by their title.
Other commonly used titles include ‘mummy’, ‘mama’, ‘daddy’ and ‘papa’. For clarity, these titles are used by non-children of the addressee. Sometimes, perfect strangers. Back in Nigeria, when I call my younger cousins, they respond to me as ‘auntie’. My mum’s sister-in-law still calls my mum auntie as she is around ten years younger than her. This woman is in her fifties. It’s that deep.
Speaking of my mum, I had no idea what her first name or age was until I was about 10. She was just ‘Mummy’ and she just looked really young for her age, according to everyone else. I remember when I found out what her name was and being super excited about it. I would call her by her name, when I was in an especially cheeky mood. She would pretend to be angry and try to tell me off…and then laugh.
The Photographer proposed to me when I was 25. I was the first in my circle of friends to take this step. I had an engagement party soon afterwards. In my mind, I was still young. I looked young. I dressed like a young person. I listened to young people’s music. I knew what Grime was. In fact, we could have played ‘Name That Tune’ with any song from any current genre and I would have been able to name it in no more than four bars. In fact, there was no denying it - I was young. But, I was almost married now. So, when a daughter of one of my many aunties, let’s call her my ‘cousin’, called me ‘auntie’, I was initially taken aback; however, I was also secretly quite proud that I had now achieved this status. I was considered a big woman. And I was young. So, I was down. I was a cool, big woman! *mini fist pump* Boom!
So, the scene is set. Now, with all of this in mind, you may well appreciate my surprise, nay, my horror, six or so years ago, when I first heard one of Kid 1’s counterparts, aged around two years old, call me by my first name? I had to do a double take. Was this pikin* talking to me or some other child with the same name as me? Where I’m from, I’m a qualified auntie now. Fullstop. What was going on? Was it a dream?
No, it had really happened…
This became a running joke for a while. My discomfort with the whole first name thing was obvious. I tried to get Kid 1 to call my really close NCT/baby massage crew either auntie <insert example female name here> or uncle <insert example male name here>, but they were thrown off when their little buddies weren’t calling me, or their daddy (The Photographer), auntie, or uncle, back. There was also the fact that some of my friends clearly felt their own discomfort with my child calling them auntie or uncle and were often like, “Oh, you don’t have to call me that” or “Just call me <insert example first name here>”. I would try in vain to establish this as a thing. It didn’t ever work.
There have been occasions when my kids have been completely confused by the whole thing. Close friends of mine from school, university and the early days of work are all auntie-this or uncle-that. My girls sometimes ask, “Mummy, whose brother is uncle [such and such]?” or “Are we from the same family as auntie [such and such]?” I then have to explain that we are not actually blood-related, but they are very close to us so we do not call them by their first names out of respect. They squeeze up their faces, squint with one eye and look confused for a moment but then swiftly move the conversation on to asking for the iPad or the password for my phone.
With the kids going back to school earlier this month, this name-calling has recently been compounded. I have seven and five year old kids running after me in the playground, shouting out my first name, then asking if my kids can come to their house for a playdate or if they can come to mine. “Leave me alone child!”, I want to scream, “Or at least bring me your responsible adult!” But, I don’t, because then both I and my children would have our days numbered at that school. Instead, I smile at the children and count to ten in my head as they continue to butcher my name with their tiny tongues.
Faced with a wall of resistance from the majority of the school mums around me, and not wanting my kids to show unreciprocated respect to, let’s be honest now, some wholly, unworthy women, I allow my kids to call the adults at school by their first names and I allow their friends to call me by mine. I don’t see the anxiety in my kids that I felt any time I needed to ask a non-black adult a question. They do not whisper the adult names as I dreaded having to do to. They shout (quite literally) the names out and don’t think too much of it. It’s all been normalised. Whatever the ethnicity of the adult. My kids are happy with it. Their friends are happy with it. Their friends’ parents are happy with it. Basically, all involved are happy about it. All, that is, except me. So, what’s my bloody problem?
I’ve given this some thought and I guess, for me, it’s endemic of the wider issue of the culture that I was brought up with slipping away. It’s another facet of my kid’s heritage that has been diluted, probably with my help. In this post-Brexit era that we are living through, we are constantly being told that different is wrong. Multiculturalism is, apparently, the greatest anathema of our time. Something as innocuous as addressing an adult by their correct title has become analogous with speaking Polish on a bus. And I’ve been complicit in facilitating it.
So, my problem is guilt. On top of all of the more traditional and universal mum guilt, I’ve now got this to deal with. Cheers life! Cheers very much!
* Nigerian ‘pidgin’ (slang) for child
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