And a lesson on respect
Afew years ago, I began using my whole name professionally. This decision was partly strategic. The dominant culture was beginning to engage questions of diverse representation and identity, and though these questions had always been prevalent in both my work and life, I felt it necessary to signal my position more clearly. But it was also a personal choice. I wanted to foreground my work, my outward-facing adult self, in the totality of who I am.
When I was little, Kelli María wasn’t a choice but, simply, my name. A baby talk variation remains in circulation as a nickname by my parents, a linguistic artifact of my pre-verbal reflexive self. Then I went to school, and the middle name stayed home. Out of sight, but not of mind.
Middle names have weight in pan-Latinx culture; they’re more than just an aesthetic complement to pad out the top line of a birth certificate. But I learned long ago not to presume that this significance would be recognized, nor respected. So I kept it quiet, hidden. Safe.
The experience of being a person of mixed ethnicity in America is fraught. I’ve never figured out how to talk about it. When I do, my expectations for my audience start low. People tend not to get where I’m coming from unless their backgrounds are similar, and others tend not to expend the effort to try. Until very recently, it never occurred to me that this dynamic wasn’t an inevitability, but a choice: on the part of others, and on mine.
I have a working theory as to why. Early in the pandemic, I begin running into a specific premise of evolutionary psychology: that people are ill-equipped to comprehend what’s ambiguous. The human brain evolved to make snap decisions for survival, to identify friend or foe, predator or prey. Accepting in-betweens is not our forte. More to the point, uncertainty makes us nervous. We’re hard-wired to crave the assurance of clear labels and predictable storylines.
I get it, and I feel it. But also? Tough shit.
Mixed people — as well as non-mixed BIPOC individuals who routinely navigate predominantly white, Eurocentric spaces — are used to being told that we are not who we claim to be. “You’re the most white-passing person ever,” is a refrain I’ve heard throughout my life, and I know what people mean when they say it. It’s a power play that’s expected to go unchallenged. And I also know that the take is subject to change: a few hours in the sun, a…