I was so excited about the training that I showed up five minutes early, a lifetime to wait for a meeting to start on Zoom. When she arrived, our instructor seemed warm and her brown eyes smiled. I smiled back though I couldn’t know if she saw me. There were two Zoom pages of participants in the room by then. And just as I lifted my cup to my lips—a mug that reads “Probably beer”—the instructor’s cheerful expression softened into a deadpan stare into the camera. Could she see me? Is it my mug? Is my mic on? The instructor then spoke, “I’m so sorry. I don’t have my pronouns showing. I meant to have my pronouns.” She then renamed herself, added she/her next to her name, and said, “I’d like to ask you all to do the same. It’s a way of signaling you’re friendly to your clients who are from the LGBTQ Community and you can start by offering them a welcoming space with your pronouns.”
I thought, I want to be welcoming. I wanted to say, hey, yo, rest your feet here my friend. You’re in safe and friendly waters. But instead, I just sat there, not heeding the teacher’s instruction. I understood her call and the importance of using pronouns—that it empowers and allows us to claim our identities and define ourselves. That it is also a warm welcome to those who deserve warm welcomes. I support it, honor it and know it is necessary even as I walk my own path for the very same reasons. I confess that as a 40-something, it seems that all of my life I have been aware of the power and fight over my pronouns (she/her). That culturally, they were more than just words but an expectation, a hierarchy, a judgment, a character call, and even a disability. They are still. And before my generation, women fought to not be named as a possession of a man—from belonging to the Mr.—“Mrs.”—to Ms., unless a woman made that choice. This was revolutionary.
Until a decade ago, pronouns were attached to biology. But humans evolve. My hope, perhaps naively, is that we’re moving toward something better because “the good old days” weren’t.
So that day in the training, I thought, I want to be a good ally to those who are fighting to be able to declare and empower themselves with their own pronouns. I want to be affirming. And even so, I felt some way about her request. I was in two minds. One was of welcome and of progress and of change, and the other was my history as a woman, and even more deeply, as a descendant of American slaves.
In slavery, our names (along with our tongues) were carved out, leaving blood. I’m reminded of this even today with every sneer, every laugh at our names like Shawanda or Tykwon or X–our beautiful attempts to rewrite the ledger of our self-ownership—names we’ve created and given to ourselves. I have come to not wish to be labeled or named by anybody else, even if someone else thinks I’ve messed up my best try.
So I sat there, not doing as the teacher instructed, which to me was worse because I’m a teacher, too, in a different space. But that day, after the teacher’s pronoun request, I watched the Zoom pages flicker as most of the participants added pronouns. No one chose ze/zir or xe or other gender-neutral pronouns. Most chose he/him or she/her. One chose they/them whereas I sat frozen as the instructor congratulated everyone. She said, “Has everyone changed their pronouns? I encourage you to change your pronouns. We’ll wait.”
Though I am a grown azz woman, I felt pressure. Giving in, I renamed myself, Natashia Deón (she/her).
Then I crumbled.
I graduated law school in 2000, working my way through that hard road by going to law school at night (6pm to 10pm) while working full-time in the corporate world, Monday through Friday (9am to 5pm). On Saturday and Sunday, I worked at the front desk of a hotel.
I didn’t begin at the front desk. I had responded to a Help Wanted ad in their food service department. The hotel needed dishwashers and I was raised to believe that all honest work is good work, so I wasn’t too proud to take my Bachelor degree having self to load some dishes to help pay my law school tuition. The person who hired me let me know that all of my close co-workers would be Spanish speakers. It was perfect, I thought. I could practice my Spanish and working in the back would mean I’d never have to run into my corporate colleagues who might find me there in uniform trying to make ends meet while they were enjoying a golf vacation.
The first day on the job, I was just twenty years old. The Assistant General Manager came to the back where I was preparing for my day. I was in my gloves, an apron, and a hair net that was pulled down to my eyebrows, denting a straight line across my forehead, leaving a funny unibrow effect. When he saw me, he didn’t laugh too. Instead, he cornered me behind a three-story metal rack of dishes, touched my hair net, and said, “This face belongs at the front desk. You’re too pretty to work back of house.”
I was embarrassed before I felt uncomfortable. But, I thought, my discomfort didn’t matter. I needed the job, and a $2 pay rise on day one for front desk customer service work was my excuse for yes.
So with every, “Hello, welcome to your new home for the next few days,” I’d say as cheerfully as possible when hotel guests checked in, I prayed to never to see a familiar face.
That Assistant Manager would be fired not long after my promotion for being caught sleeping with another front desk clerk in a hotel room he’d marked “unavailable’ in the hotel computer system. It wasn’t the first time. It was on a holiday weekend, on a day I answered the hotel’s reservation line, “I’m sorry, sir…I’m sorry ma’am. We’re fully booked today.”
A couple of days later, when I was interviewed by upper management about this manager’s actions and was asked if I knew the number of staff members he’d been sleeping with, I said I didn’t know. I’d heard rumors, but I had only been on the job three days and rumor was not fact. “Did he try to have sex with you?” one interviewer said plainly. “No,” I said. “Not that I know of.”
“That you know of?” he said. And, I remember thinking, how could I possibly know a stranger’s intentions? So when the interviewer pressed me to give him more answers, I began to feel unsafe. I was unsafe. Three days on the job, still within my three-month probationary period, and these people could fire me with no cause. I wasn’t going to give them reason. What I understood was that I was the “least” of everyone on the job, most dispensable–new, a woman, and Black.
As a customer service representative, I expected to encounter certain abuses and behaviors from hotel guests—bed not made, shower not hot enough, noise, cigarette smell, poor service, rowdiness, loud sex next to a family, disrespect, etc.—conflict management comes with the job. I saw myself as the soft spot between the hotel business and the customer—a friendly face ready for verbal blows.
As I sat being grilled about this grown man’s sexual exploits around the hotel, a man who had been the Assistant General Manager for six years, second under the boss, I wasn’t expecting these aggressions that came my way. I suppose it’s like being Black in America and needing to call the police and thinking, will the criminal perpetrator get me or the police we’ve called? I didn’t feel safe. And it didn’t make sense that the hotel management wanted to press me about perversions they should have been sure of already.
At the end of my interview, I said, “If you have victims who have come forward, maybe you should trust them.” The Assistant Manager would be terminated by the end of the week, though the hotel did not admit to finding any wrongdoing, and like so many male-run American corporations, they chose the side of “brotherhood”—their silence, “inconclusive” investigation, and termination for “no cause.”
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time my path would cross with men who prey on women in this way. Over the years, I’d try different ways to protect myself, sometimes I’d fail (and only once I lashed out). Sometimes I felt like a protector of other victims (only to be used by those same victims who’d abandoned me and leave me holding and defending their story alone). Sometimes I chose to help the investigators, giving unsolicited honesty because the interviewers weren’t asking the right questions.
I would stay on at the hotel for about a year until I was able to leave and focus on two jobs instead of three—law school at night and corporate law as a trainee. After I passed the California bar exam and became a full fledge and successful insurance defense attorney in Los Angeles and then San Francisco, I found that no matter how professionally I dressed, wore my hair, make-up, how I spoke, prepared or won, and made the company money, in a job where I was usually the only woman in the room and certainly the only Black woman in the room, rare was the day that some man (or white woman) didn’t comment on my clothes, hair, make a comment or joke about women in business, exclude me from a round of golf or after work drinks, or give me some backhanded compliment.
I was proud of my job performance then but if I mirrored the words the men in our legal department used when they took pride in themselves, I was told I lacked humility and came to understand that their words in the mouth of woman was all wrong. “O.K,” I’d say, not being able to articulate my discomfort and anger. I wished there were books like The Memo by Minda Harts then, and I wished I could be better. Once in San Francisco, another lawyer in my office suggested I shorten my first name to just Nat. “On your memos and offer letters, no one will know that you’re a woman with the name Nat. It’s still your name.” He meant well.
“How about Nate Dogg,” I said, jokingly. He didn’t get it.
“At least they won’t try to take advantage of you.”
“I prefer Natashia,” I said. “Then, they’ll have to see for themselves who they’re dealing with.” Natashia (phonetically, Na-ta-sha) is not my full first name anyway. I was named after Tarshish, a Biblical city in the story of Solomon and after a Biblical person—an advisor to the king in the story of Esther. My born name is Na-Tarshia. The r was silent, I was always told by my family and my church, the “ia” a blend like the ending of Alicia. So it has always been Na-ta-sha.
I changed the spelling of my name in college because when others saw my name on paper, they could accept the “sha” but the silent r was too big a stretch and they would tease me with some version or exaggeration of tar. “Tarrrrrrr. Hey, Tar! That’s Tar.” (followed by laughter). Tar was a part of my name, yes, but also as a dark-skinned Black woman, I understood it to also be a racist shorthand term for Tarbaby or the like and I was tired of deciphering the speaker’s intentions. I decided if anyone was going to change my name, it would be me so I took both the time and deep reflection to excise a single letter from my Christian name—an r—losing my birth religion in a stroke. So, becoming a “Nat” for men or to make somebody else’s business money was not even a question.
Not long ago, I had my last in-person criminal case before the pandemic closed courthouses. I was defending a young woman in criminal court. She was a Black teenager, old enough to be culpable as an adult in California following a certain type of violent but non-deadly crime. She was intelligent, a good friend to her friends, and warm. She also carried the most dangerous personality combination for young people in our society: had compassion (for others she’d deemed weak), sensitivity, and anger about the hypocrisy of the world. But she had no healthy ways to cope. So many of our gifted are misdirected.
I was fighting to keep her freedom and to get her mental health treatment. A conviction could cost her the next ten years of her life in state prison.
I was brought on to her case pro bono, which meant I worked for free. I knew her aunt, a white woman who cared deeply for this teen. Her aunt said, “We can’t afford help and aren’t comfortable with the public defender.”
On the first day of court, early that morning, I met her niece* in lock-up, inside of the courthouse, just before the Sheriff handcuffed her and walked her into the courtroom where she stood behind Plexiglass with other defendants. Just before, I had interviewed her confidentially and let her know what to expect from the day. When we finished, I met her aunt in the hallway of the court and after “hello,” she told me my outfit was cute—a blue pants suit, my over the shoulder brown case full of files. I said thank you and assured her that we were prepared for whatever might come. I asked if she had any questions. The aunt leaned into me, as if to share something confidential, used her hand to brush aside the bangs on my forehead and said, “You could use Botox right here.”
The first thought that crossed my mind was, have I done my job? Did I adequately explain what is likely going to happen today? The niece she loved may not come home. I knew this was all very difficult. She said, “Right here, above your left eyebrow.” Then she fixed my collar. I let her. I froze. Felt objectified. I felt like the label lawyer was gone and I was reduced again to “woman” adding “older” to the string of adjectives that defined me, and wondered if I had provided good customer service.
I hadn’t felt that kind of disempowerment in a long time. The battle was in the courtroom, against a prosecutor and perhaps the judge, wasn’t it? Managing her niece’s fear of possible long-term imprisonment? But there it was again, coming from the wrong direction, the wrong side of my job. It was confusing and hurtful and I remember asking myself, had I done all of my life wrong? Have I been kidding myself? Had my record of success in court in hundreds of cases in the last decades been a joke? Should I have settled with being barefoot and pregnant and planning Christmas meals, doing Mommy dates and play dates and tending to blow out hairdos and age defying skin care? (No shade to those who do, or do it all). I like being a mother and a wife, my tattoos and stilettos. I like to look nice…on my terms and when I can. Not usually in a courtroom. But that day, I felt the loss of not “falling in line” with what was expected of me.
In an instant, I was reminded of every inappropriate man and every inappropriate woman I’d encountered throughout my career who wanted to point out that I missed the mark; who saw me as a walking vagina in a suit, open and available for whatever that meant to them; a token who was given a place I didn’t earn, even if I worked weekends and the nightshift to make this version of me possible, even if I’d work for them for free. The only thing that triggered these memories was the brushing aside of my bangs and a recommendation for Botox.
Had I not been able to see this aunt’s humanity and the direness of the situation that day in court, or that she was a caregiver encountering a trauma, my response may have been unkind. Even now I can make all sorts of excuses for why she objectified me in a courtroom hallway—she didn’t know social etiquette, no one ever told her there’s a problem with this behavior, no one’s perfect, it could’ve been worse, forgive and forget, I’m making too big of a deal, etc.—but I’m at an age today where I’ve stopped letting my words normalize mistreatment. Especially since the mistreatment I’ve allowed in the past has been of me.
So I chose silent compassion over correction; a choice that left her still ignorant in what she believes is her privilege toward women. I don’t always want to be a teacher. Nor should I be. But if you’re reading this, I’m teaching you now. Telling stories through multiple examples is how law school is taught—you’re able to pass the Bar exam not because you’ve memorized the definition of “burglary” but because you’ve combed through different burglary case “examples” that have happened over the years. You learn best when you find the answers yourself and see them in action, not when they’re told to you.
I won her niece’s freedom from jail (and in the coming months, would win her freedom from culpability for that crime), and if given a chance to revisit those moments the only thing I’d change is that I’d trade the aunt’s ignorance with my words: “This makes me uncomfortable.” And most of all, “Don’t touch my f-ing hair!” Instead, I took the elevator downstairs as soon as the court day ended, gave the aunt no good-bye, and it was the best I could do to save spending more emotion. I needed to process the day and its victory without being wasteful with myself.
No situation where you wish you would have been different ever returns the same way. The universe…God, in my understanding, will send it back to you, but in a different setting, with different actors, a different director, and the lesson will still be for you.
So, as I sat there staring at the two new words I’d added to my profile—she/her—now my public proclamation of my relationship to being a Black woman in this world who’s had old definitions and expectations of pronouns weaponized against me—the memory of the stories I’ve just told you washed over me.
I collected myself in front of my Zoom camera, recognized I’d been triggered, and made the choice to honor myself. My person. And I clicked the three dots next to my face, chose “Rename” and deleted (she/her).
Intellectually, I understand the power of self-naming and what we lose when we allow others to do it for us. I am trying hard to not let my “self” be ignored, or to allow others to redefine or reduce me to some label while honoring others.
This is an intersectional existence. One that includes my biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, and the other parts of me. As optimistic as it sounds, I look forward to the day where we can come together in a symphony of ourselves without fear. One where we can listen to others without speaking, consider each other’s nuances, sincerely, and not suffer from an over-aligning that robs us of our individual experiences, or allows for dangerous “smiling delusions.” Smiling delusions is an unofficial name I’ve given to situations where we live and work with people who actively hurt us but we smile and pretend all is well, and the people who are doing the hurting will smile back and also pretend, so long as we won’t challenge them to understand how they’re hurting us.
Smiling delusions will keep us divided in many ways, and unhealed.
As a Black, cis-gender woman, I want to be a person who welcomes, who listens, admits when I’m wrong and do a course correction, wrestles with what is true especially if it is outside of my experiences; one who’ll also have to balance and prove my welcome by other means, and do it genuinely, truthfully, and beautifully, like a good hotel front desk clerk. But I also know that even that job was about participating in an experience made for others. Not for me. Yet, here I am hurting too.
If I could add a trailer to my name, I’d say, I’m sorry for everything that’s led us to needing pronouns and I take responsibility for the parts I’ve played in it. I’m ready for this revival. And, Hello, my name is Natashia Deón. I’m honored to be in this time and place with someone as unique as you.
Luca Biada, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons