I hate ordering at coffee shops. The interaction follows the same script every time:
I ask the barista for a vanilla chai latte. He asks me, “Name?” It’s a question I’ve grown to loathe. While the Dans and Julias of the world might respond without a second thought, I brace myself for an awkward exchange.
As the barista positions the Sharpie over the cup, ready to transcribe, there’s the initial moment of confusion as he tries to process the name he’s just heard. “Sorry?” he says. But still nothing.
From there, it can progress in one of two ways. Some will simply attempt to approximate the combination of sounds they just heard. Others will ask you to spell out your name, requiring the additional task of convincing them that it is, in fact, N as in Nancy. It’s a tedious tradition.
One day this summer, I went to a coffee shop with my friend. As she stepped up to the counter to order, I readied myself to endure the next few minutes of awkward confusion — her name, Sneha, had tripped up a number of baristas before.
I stared at her in confusion, and she just shrugged. “It’s not worth the trouble,” she said.
That was my introduction to the concept of a “Starbucks name”: a name chosen for its ease of pronunciation and spelling. A name that won’t hold up the line as you explain how to spell it, how it’s pronounced, what language it’s from, what it means — a conversation that no Mary has ever had to have.
But, even in the seemingly trivial context of a drink order, replacing names that bear centuries of heritage with bland alternatives, all for simple “convenience,” bothered me. Surely maintaining the integrity of your culture is worth a few minutes of awkwardness at the Starbucks counter?
Lowering your standards and accommodating others’ unfamiliarity seems to validate their wariness of the foreign and different. And I have no interest in shedding my identity for someone else’s comfort, especially since I’ve already done so once before.
* * *
I was born on August 7, 1995. But, Aparna Nathan was born on June 13, 2007, in a Westchester County courtroom, out of a stack of forms signed by an 11-year-old who hated change more than anything else
Before that, I was Aparna Senthilnathan. It was the kind of name that would never fit in the ten bubbles allotted on standardized tests, the kind of name that made teachers pause while taking attendance. I knew when to expect my name during roll call, so I’d often interject before the silence could.
In seventh grade, my family finally became U.S. citizens. In an Ellis Island-esque Anglicization, I walked out of the courthouse with a brand new last name chosen by my parents.
At first, I hated it. The name felt strange on me, like clothes that didn’t quite fit, like I was impersonating someone I didn’t really know. Who was Aparna Nathan? What made her different? Every time I had to write my name, my hand hesitated, yearning to draw the familiar curves of the letter S, but instead settling for the sharp corners of an N. Even little things, like monogrammed backpacks or charm bracelets with my initials, were now rendered obsolete, relics of a past life.
My parents insisted that it was for the best. A quick search on the internet yields numerous studies showing that people with more familiar names are better liked, more trusted and more successful in the workplace, results that betray the subconscious judgments we deny but constantly make. But I rejected this. Why should I change my name to accommodate society’s misguided wariness of that which is different?
The worst part was explaining it when I came to school the next day, a new American with a new name. Did you do it to be more American, everyone asked in a tone that implied assumption more than inquiry. Assimilation, like we learned in social studies, right?
I insisted that it wasn’t true. I wasn’t trying to pretend to be American, and I wasn’t trying to shed my culture and my heritage. But even as I protested, I realized that I was replacing a name that had specific ties to my past, passed down from generation to generation, with one pulled out of thin air.
Eight years later, acclimation has led to an indifference that I’m not proud of. My name now feels like it fits me — I like the way it sounds and how symmetrical it looks on paper. Now, no one ever has a problem pronouncing my last name, although I don’t know if it made me better liked, more trusted or more successful.
But I feel like I lost a valuable opportunity. Maybe if people were expected to say my full name, wrap their tongues around the foreign syllables and understand the roots of a language that stretches back eons before English ever existed, they would better understand the history that preceded me and the path that brought me here.
But at least “Aparna” still makes baristas think twice.
Barbara Smith is a black feminist, scholar, writer and sociopolitical powerhouse who has spent decades advocating for marginalized communities. Yesterday she came to Yale to give a master’s tea in Pierson College, where she touched on issues of activism and intersectionality. WKND sat down with Ms. Smith to talk history, race relations, and LGBTQ issues in America.
Q: In some of your past interviews, you mention how exposure to Black female literature greatly impacted your academic, political and social work. Could you explain more about that?
A: After attending Mount Holyoke College, I entered graduate school. My motivation for going to grad school was that I wanted to teach African-American literature, which was virtually not taught in universities in those days. Not even in historically Black colleges and universities. One of the first courses that I took was a seminar in Women’s literature. And just like African-American literature and studies, Women’s studies and literature was barely available. The person who taught the course was obviously innovative, but there were no women of color in the entire syllabus. Later, I had found out that Alice Walker was teaching a course on Black Women’s Literature at Wellesley College because I was a subscriber to Ms. Magazine. So I wrote to Alice Walker and asked if I could audit her course. That was the opportunity to be exposed to more Black women writers. People mostly associate me with helping to establish Black women’s studies in the U.S. and to build [the] Black feminist movement in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s. I went to become the co-founder of the Kitchen Table Press, a major publisher of stories by women of color.
Q: What about your activism during the Civil Rights Movement? And the changes and issues within it? What were your feelings at that moment?
A: It was exciting to come of age during the most dynamic periods — socially and politically — in U.S. history. As Black people living in the North [Ms. Smith was born in Cleveland], it was all impacting us. Especially the focus on Selma in the spring of 1965. I had graduated from high school with my twin sister, Beverly. We were anticipating going to college, but due to my age I was fully aware of the activism in the South. We were also paying attention to what was going on there because our family had moved from Georgia. When we began building the black women’s movement, we were exhilarated to find and work with other people who also thought that Black women were of value, were capable and that there was no need for us to be afterthoughts. There was a lot of sexism in the Civil Rights Movement and even more in the Black Power and Black Nationalist movements. For very alert, young Black women, that wasn’t working for us.
Q: What were the results of challenging those movements’ sexism?
A: We experienced a large amount of pushback, defamation and marginalization from the mainstream. There were people who were so radical about confronting racism, yet they saw us as race traitors for talking about sexism. We worked on a variety of women’s health issues, particularly sterilization abuse, which mostly affects Black, Latina and indigenous women. And women who had cognitive disabilities. The state thought they could control their reproductive capacities and rights. We also brought attention to violence towards women. And you can still see that attention to violence against women in newspapers right now, with what’s going on in these campus fraternities. The more things change, the more these issues are out in the open.
Q: Has there been any radical change in feminist thought and advocacy since the 1960s and 1970s, from your perspective?
A: There have always been different strains of politics. Everyone who says that they’re a feminist doesn’t necessarily believe the same things and have the same values as another person. There are mainstream and bourgeois feminists whose major concern is that they need to get paid the same as a man, they need to have as much power as a man and do things that men do. And then there are people who say that we need to look at the intersection of race, gender, class, sexual orientation and gender identity, then figure out how our politics are based on those things. I was one of the first people who began to talk about an intersectional perspective and how we understand our political and personal lives. I was a part of an organization, the Combahee River Collective, and we wrote a statement in 1977 that was one of the first, strongest and most analytical articulations of intersectional politics. A lot of people use the word, but not many know where it came from.
Q: This mainstream brand of feminism, as you call it, could be seen as not enough.
A: It’s still quite popular. We have that term “lean in,” and the book which became a mega-bestseller for Sheryl Sandberg. That is a way of understanding what women’s position is that doesn’t necessarily have depth. What if you are simultaneously a person of color, a woman and you don’t have economic or class privilege? This conversation occurred at this year’s Academy Awards when Patricia Arquette — an actor I love — talked about pay equity. But she went on to say that White women had done so much for people of color and gay people, so it was time they help them in return. Hello! Has she never thought that there are people who are simultaneously [all of] those things? It made no sense. Besides, pay equity mostly affects women who don’t earn a lot of money. It’s not people who are the top of the pay pyramids most affected by pay equity. The vast majority of people who make minimum wage are women, and that’s where pay equity hits.
Some people are articulating these narrow thoughts of feminism, as opposed to a deeper understanding of feminism and politics from an intersectional perspective. But I will say that it’s much more acceptable for women of color to be out as feminists now than back then. Now, Beyoncé can perform at the music awards and have “feminist” in sky-high letters behind her and still be the queen of us all. I think she’s made statements about her understanding of feminism and I think that she has more depth than some of the other manifestations we’ve been talking about. That’s interesting and unique. And the fact that “Selma” was directed by a black woman [Ava DuVernay] — that was powerful. In her film, the women are visible. There were women portrayed in that film that I didn’t even know about. Like the local women from Selma — I didn’t know about them.
Q: And what of activism today? Are we more active now, or more apathetic?
A: The majority of people of my generation were not involved in making dynamic political and social change. People who have that level of commitment and courage have never been the majority. So, don’t think that in the 1960s and 1970s that on an entire campus like Yale’s everybody was out supporting the Black Panthers or something. As far as today, I feel encouraged and impressed that the demonstrations around the verdicts in Ferguson and Long Island are happening. They seem more inclusive, when before there were such strict lines and lanes. People are more willing to be more accepting of diversity. Although I do know that the women who started “Black Lives Matter” feel that their work has been appropriated and have spoken out about that. But as someone who is an elder, I feel very inspired by young people speaking out. And people working across generations. I don’t know about the nuts and bolts of what could be done better. I’ve heard from younger activists that there needs to be more specific demands. Like, what besides “Don’t Shoot” or “Black Lives Matter”? What else are you demanding from the power structure?
Q: You’ve never shied away from presenting yourself as not just a Black feminist, but as a lesbian Black feminist. What sort of positive changes have you seen in regard to LGBTQ support, and what else can be improved upon?
A: One change I’ve seen is how President Obama and his views have evolved. Of course, I heard that he was never opposed to lesbian and gay marriage, but, politically, he couldn’t come out with that. That the first black president is also the first president of any race to openly support gay, lesbian and transgender people is wonderful. And then we see in “Empire,” my favorite show these days, a character is gay and his mother is fiercely supportive of him. I see the changes. For me, being visibly out in this country during the 1970s — well, I’ve paid a lot of dues for that. But I’ve seen results.
One of the things that can be improved upon, I would say, is that we should see the intersectionality in LGBTQ issues. When you look at class, race, gender in relation to LGBTQ identity you begin to see the complexity of what true freedom and justice look like. There was a report issued from the Center of American Progress late last year. It looks at housing discrimination, employment discrimination, poverty, health care discrimination, and on and on. it’s a nuanced and thoroughly researched document about what besides and above marriage we need to be concerned about. We need to understand that the LGBTQ community isn’t just about White, affluent, gay men on TV or in magazines. They’re a part of the community, too, but their experience does not subsume those of us who have multiple identities. The fact is that trans women of color are the most likely to be living poverty, to be incarcerated, to be the subject of hate crimes including murders. Marriages aren’t going to solve hate crimes, transphobia and homophobia. There’s more to LGBTQ freedom than marriage. We must continue to keep plugging away. Still it’s remarkable for me, coming out a few years after Stonewall, that a majority of the states now have marriage equality. We weren’t even thinking about that then. We were trying to stop Anita Bryant!
My ex-girlfriend just watched my snap story. I know my story is good, but our breakup was bad. What does this mean, and what should I do about it?
Receiving Mixed Messages
Well that’s a millennial question if I ever read one.
First, until you’ve figured out her motivation, don’t watch her story or open any snapchats you might receive from her. Ignoring a snapchat is a power play (akin to turning “read receipts” on, and then reading your texts but not responding).
Before you assume that she’s hoping to get back together, you need to figure out the likelihood that she watched your story by accident. Check to make sure that she has watched your story’s every frame. Maybe her finger hovered too close to the screen, but she stopped watching as soon as she realized her mistake. If she watched only a few frames but not the entire thing, then this is probably the explanation. You should sigh and move on.
(As an aside, recently, a friend of mine considered deleting his snap story because he thought he had lost viewers between the first and second frames. If you experience the same issue, you should probably work on timing. Make the plot more dramatic and raise the stakes with shorter snaps.)
But if your ex has watched all eight frames of your current story, then that’s intentional. And yes, she could be pining after you, especially if she does this every single time you upload a story. If this is the case, you could test the waters by sending a personal snap. Try to see what’s up: Maybe she’s feeling like Taylor Swift in “I Wish You Would.” Or stay strong and remember that you are never ever getting back together, because you probably broke up for a lot of good reasons.
Or maybe she’s just bored and doesn’t think you’re going to care that much if she views your story. Maybe she just wanted to see what you were up to and observe your life from the safe distance of your snap story.
This is quite possibly the most logical explanation. So, if you’re this obsessed with knowing that she watched your story, you should probably check your own feelings. Are you over her? Or are you dying to watch her snap story? If the latter, snapchat just won’t help you figure out these emotions.
And finally, there is one more possible explanation: she might be snapchat-illiterate, with no idea that you can see who has watched your story. If this is the case, then thank God you’re not together anymore. Evoke the Lady Antebellum song “Better Off Now (That You’re Gone)” in your next snap story, and don’t even take the time check who’s watched it.
I’ll watch your story if you’ll watch mine,
P.S. My ex-boyfriend just updated his snap story with some videos of exam studying, and I watched every frame. I wonder if that’ll keep him up at night. (I kind of hope it does.)
How do you tell a girl that all you want to do is take her out to a casual but still nice dinner, split a dessert and then watch a RomCom with her?
I just want to listen to you talk about your dog
Here are some suggestions (in order of personal preference): Ask her in person, text, email, call or try Facebook Messenger.
But if you’re really asking about how to find a girl: My dog’s name is Roxy, I love Kitchen Zinc, I’d even watch a horror flick just to cuddle with you and you can find my email at the bottom of this column.
Waiting for your call,
I want to like art so I seem cultured to my friends/romantic prospects, but it is really hard for me to get into it.
How do I make museums exciting? What are your favorites?
Thanks in Advance,
Cultured Like A Petri Dish
I don’t know who you’re trying to impress, but you kind of sound like a jerk. If you simply don’t like art, why force yourself? I’m sure you’re passionate about other things, and that these things make you seem worldly, cool and fun.
But if you’re dead set on finding a way to love art, you gotta find a buddy. Personally, I’m usually able to get excited about anything by listening to someone who’s super passionate talk about it. That’s why I end up taking classes like Textiles of Asia, and that’s why I love watching documentaries. People who really care can make anything incredible.
So, choose a friend who you find really cultured, and go to stuff with them. I actually am really passionate about art, and I love dragging my friends to museums with me. Just this week I went to an exhibition opening in New York City and brought a friend along. I think we had fun (but maybe it was just the third glass of wine). If you don’t have any friends, the student guides at the Yale Center for British Art or the gallery guides at the Yale University Art Gallery will pretend to be your friends for an hour. And during that hour they’ll teach you about art. That’s a win-win, in my opinion.
Or, if you want to seem really offbeat and interesting, you can do it alone. Find some random materials in the Beinecke or works on paper from the Prints and Drawings collection at the YCBA. You can request to have them pulled and get up close and personal with the old stuff. I promise that’ll give you a go-to conversation topic for when you want to sound like you’re cultured.
If you really want the insider scoop about art on campus, I’ll even a share a secret with you: The coolest art space on campus is the Furniture Study at 149 York. It’s like IKEA from the olden days, but you don’t have to assemble anything. They have tours at 12:30 p.m. every Friday. Go now, thank me later.
But Petri, you seem to be into taking shortcuts. So what’s the TL;DR, you might ask? My next tour at the YCBA is on Nov. 14 at 2:30 p.m., and I’d love to be your friend for an hour.