But you don’t look like a Joniqua

I recall sitting on my bedroom floor when my little brother grabbed some document and attempted to pronounce my name. “Joe-KNEE-Kwahhhh”, he enunciated. He stared at me in puzzlement and inquired, “Who is that?”

You can probably count the number of people in my family who go by their first name on your fingers, so it was a humorous moment and not really a big deal. Or was it? After that I became more cognizant of how I introduced myself and how many others didn’t know my first name was actually Joniqua.

Growing up, the world made it apparent that my name was “ethnic”, obviously. Middle school friends said I was a ghetto nerd because although my name was Joniqua I was the main one renting books from the library. Teachers spelled out my name on the first day of class or didn’t even bother and simply read, “Ceasar”. Or, they completely butchered a name that is pronounced exactly as it is spelled. In my multi-ethnic high school I think people attempted to compliment me by declaring, “Oh, but you don’t look like a Joniqua”. Apparently I didn’t sound or act like one either. Should I have found some big silver hoops, gotten a gold tooth and donned a pair of Air Force 1s? Did I miss the memo to roll my neck and snap those “Z’s”?

During my undergraduate career I was Josie until someone ended up in class with me or we communicated through an email exchange. It’s not like I reinvented a new identity; I grew up with the name Josie just as much as Joniqua. My mom had embroidered my clothes with the name Josie. When we went on family vacations I searched for keychains with the name Josie. My parents always introduced me as their daughter, Josie. My name was Josie. Josie was safe. White people have that name, too. Filipinas. Latinas. People started singing “Josie and the pussycats” or asked me if I knew about Josie Wells. Josie was simple.

Joniqua was too controversial. It took awhile to acknowledge it, but I was ashamed. When I introduced myself as Joniqua, my name would sit as a lump in my throat and linger there a few seconds too long before ungracefully rolling off the tongue. I held my breath hoping there would be no contorted facial expression or predictable conversation that ensued. When people told me my name was beautiful, I wondered if they were really seeking another adjective. Perhaps they were momentarily thrown off, like Microsoft Word always is, faithfully underlining my name in red and asking me if I meant to type something else.

Surprisingly, I became more comfortable with introducing myself as Joniqua to my non-Black peers than the ones who looked like me. Maybe because I had a lot of brown friends with “non-American” names so they didn’t think anything of mine, or they just kept their opinions to themselves and I was relieved to avoid an awkward conversation. Black people on the other hand always deemed it their duty to let me know, after I’ve been living in this society for so many years, that my name was ghetto. Black people were always the ones to make some snide remark or laugh at their own jokes. Friends, strangers and everyone in between.

Black people came to this country in handcuffs and were stripped of their religions, their cultures, their names — their identities. Like pets, slaves were given monikers familiar to their masters and trained to know when they should respond. For centuries Black people struggled to be seen as something other than property and to be validated by white people as good enough. They put unhealthy amounts of heat on their kinks, they bleached their skin, they tried to speak “properly”, they gave their babies names similar to those of the children in the slave master’s house. They did all that they could do to be treated with dignity and climb the hierarchy of America’s society.

Slavery was eventually abolished but we all know racism wasn’t eradicated, as its stench lingers today (although many like to plug their noses and feign ignorance). Then Black people were fighting to drink from the same water fountain as their white neighbors, to be given textbooks that were still bound, to be taught in classroom buildings that weren’t dilapidated, to truly be treated as equal citizens. Something else happened, too. For a small segment of the population, something changed. They threw away those chemicals and hot tools and embraced their God given beauty. They picked out their fros and renewed their love for their skin. They found liberation in being Black and being proud. They decided that they didn’t have to define themselves by white culture and so their children didn’t need to be named Sally, Annie, Roger or Jake. They looked to the “Motherland” for influence and eventually created their own names. Eventually you get to the generations of baby names that are a spin off someone else’s with suffixes like -eka, -isha or -qua, prefixes like La-, or a hyphen or apostrophe thrown somewhere in the mix.

Then in 1991, Joniqua Ceasar was born.

That’s me.

Sometimes I tell people that my name means “Black daughter of Joseph Ceasar”. Pretty accurate, right?

It took me a long time to become comfortable with my name because others made me feel like I was less than because of it. It really leaves me disappointed with the Black community. Why can’t we respect the courage to defy norms in a world where the norms weren’t concerned with us and would never accept us anyways? Why do we ridicule the names of those that dare to venture into counterculture? Even worse, why do we help perpetuate this horribly racist picture for those with “Black” names? Outside of the Black community there is already enough bashing and yet Black people continue it amongst each other.

However, it most certainly doesn’t end with the Black community. Plenty of studies remind us that some white people may tell you your name is lovely upon meeting you, but most will quietly slip your job application into a dusty pile on the top shelf. Don’t be surprised when Black folks do the same. When planning vacations, you have to remember that Airbnb hosts of all races aren’t too eager to rent their properties to individuals with African-American sounding names. When it’s time for TV hosts to introduce you, they’ll refuse even though they are quick to announce more complicated European names historically associated with intelligence and prestige. Why is it that if something associated with Black culture is unappropriated, it’s seen as trashy and backwards? I wonder what perception would have been if history had it so that all the Keshas, Latoyas and Shaniquas were blue eyed with blonde locks and had the last name Kardashian (or Jenner) instead. Actually we all know.

A few years ago, I entered medical school and made a conscious decision to go by Joniqua. It caused a lot of confusion since my friends from college would refer to me as Josie but eventually everyone realized that Joniqua and Josie were the same person. Well, I hope. I commenced medical school and unwisely and unnecessarily placed the burdens and troubles of the Black race on my shoulders, but thankfully that mentality has been extinguished. I was determined to prove to my classmates that a name ending with -qua doesn’t seal one’s fate as the fictitious welfare queen. So perhaps when they crossed paths with the other -quas in the world, they wouldn’t limit her capabilities due to her name. Idiotic ideology, I know. But that’s the narrative society has painted for Black males and females like me and sometimes you convince yourself that you’re the sole representative tasked with changing mentalities. I often see Black professionals with the initialed first name and I wonder what “suffix” their parents gifted them and acknowledge their mechanism of adaptation to help them navigate a world teeming with preconceived notions about Black people. When you’re presented with the image of a physician who happens to be Black & female, society questions her credentials. Now dare adding a “ghetto” name. I was dedicated to repainting the picture.

I started medical school and I wanted to introduce myself and be known as Joniqua. I laughed at the irony of almost reinventing myself by intentionally using the name I had entered this world with. It was almost unnatural and I felt like I had initiated some social experiment I wasn’t entirely sure how to analyze. Then something changed. Contentment dissolved the lump that would arise immediately prior to introductions. Instead, I now gleefully introduce myself as Joniqua without any thought or reservations. My little social experiment made me realize that I was the one who needed teaching. Now, I am unconcerned with proving something to people who toss me into categories when they learn my name. Now, I am excited to put on my short white coat and introduce myself to little Black girls with names similar to mine. I am thrilled to encourage them to realize that those snickers don’t mean anything and to let them know that their futures are just as beautiful as their names.

Because yes — with my black skin, code-switching, and white coat, I look, sound and act just like a Joniqua.

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