Prior to high school, I’d never formally gone by Courtney, my English name — or my “white name,” as I like to call it. As a child growing up in downtown Los Angeles, everyone in my life called me Oge (pronounced oh-gay), short for Ogemdi, my Nigerian name. However, right before high school, my family moved to the suburbs of LA to a place where I remember thinking everyone looked like they belonged in a movie, or at the very least, a Hollister ad.
For the first time in my life, I had more than a handful of white classmates. Before we started high school in our new picturesque suburban hometown, my mom sat my sister and I down and explained that we could begin going by our English names if we wanted.
Typically in Igboland, the ethno-linguistic region in Southeastern Nigeria where my family is from, parents give their children names both in English and our native tongue of Igbo, also the namesake of our ethnic tribe. One name carries with it indigenous tradition and the melodious symphonies of our lively people; the other carries a history of colonialism and cultural expectations forced upon my family’s native land by the white man — two parts of the tumultuous story of our home country. On its own, Oge simply means “time” in my family’s native tongue. “Ogemdi” means “I’ve got my own time,” which my mother also translates to “destiny.” Unlike with my older sister, my mother’s pregnancy with me was unplanned, so my mom likes to say that since birth, I’ve always done things on “my own time,” whether the world was ready or not.
One name carries with it indigenous tradition and the melodious symphonies of our lively people; the other carries a history of colonialism and cultural expectations forced upon my family’s native land by the white man.
In Nigerian culture, a child’s name carries great significance. Names are not simply chosen because they sound nice or because parents like the name. They reflect what a newborn’s family may be going through at the time or the legacy a child’s family wishes for them. Yet as an impulsive preteen excited by the allure of taking on a new identity — after all, how many people get the opportunity to completely reinvent themselves before high school? — I jumped at the opportunity to begin going by my alter ego, Courtney, a name chosen at random by my parents because they liked the name.
In my new school, no one had any reason to question the name I’d given to them to call me. Yet I felt like I was keeping a part of me secret. I had lived this whole life in LA as Oge and was still my family and people from my past still called me by this name.
The transition, though tantalizing at first, always felt awkward to live out. By sophomore year of college, the novelty had finally worn off. I longed to be called by my Nigerian name once again. I didn’t want to be just another Courtney on campus, nor did I want to be referred to as “Black Courtney.”
I’m Black, but I’m also Nigerian. As a Nigerian American, being labeled as Black doesn’t encapsulate the fullness of my story. It obscures the tension and outright rejection I often felt growing up in a community distinct from the one forced on me from this country’s legacy of slavery and race-based discrimination — a community whose history, culture and linguistic habits were often foreign to me as the daughter of Black immigrants.
This country’s fascination with race in a way that centers whiteness and white culture is what led my high school classmates to call me “Black Courtney” when the only other Courtney on campus was also Black. Their insistence on calling me “Black Courtney” highlighted an unspoken (though spoken in certain instances) trauma baked into this country’s history — the name Courtney, like much of mainstream American culture, does not belong to me nor was it made for me.
Courtney was an ill-fitted coat I would pick up and put on to go out into the world. Then once I returned home, I could leave the moniker at the door and Oge remained.
I understood the confusion my revelation would create, so I started small and I revealed my Nigerian name, my real name, to only my sorority. Comforted by the promise of sisterhood, I thought surely my sisters would offer a supportive space where I could feel safe to begin testing my new (old?) name to a majority white audience for the first time. I was comically surprised at the confusion and resistance my news created. After knowing “Courtney” for less than a year, sisters remarked that it felt “weird” to call me by a “different name” as they struggled to wrap their minds and tongues around what I explained was my real name.
Many refused to call me by this new name. Others declined to even try and familiarize themselves with it, foreign to everyone’s tongue but my own. Instead, those sisters choose to ignore my request, glossing over the obvious tension this change created and forcing a part of my story back into obscurity in the process. Rather than insisting they get used to referring to me by my actual name, I ultimately relented to the confusion and outright refusal from sisters and continued going by Courtney. At the same time, I felt locked into an identity that never quite felt complete — an identity tethered to a name unintended for me or anyone who looks like me in its origin.
Courtney always felt like something people called me, simply a name. I had an existential understanding that people were referring to me when they uttered those two syllables, though they also could’ve been referring to an abstract box at the other end of the room. Courtney was just a name, a collection of letters used to identify a person, place or thing. Courtney was an ill-fitted coat I would pick up and put on to go out into the world. Then once I returned home, I could leave the moniker at the door and Oge remained.
Unlike Courtney, which could obscure my identity, I took pride in knowing that white people would be forced to accommodate me and my difference as they tried to wrap their tongues around my unapologetically Nigerian name.
Oge felt like the essence of my being, something that could be answered by me alone and that carried the weight of my culture, my heritage, my family and our country of origin — all of who I was — with its mere pronouncement. So less than halfway through college, where one’s private life and identity outside the home collide, I grew increasingly bothered that there was no longer a threshold where I could abandon this cloak and exist wholly as myself.
As the daughter of immigrants, this clear separation between my home and social life formed the foundation of my upbringing. My mother was quick to remind me and my siblings that while we may be born and raised in America, under her roof we were unquestionably Nigerian. Despite the construction of these two separate worlds, I learned this division was never a clean or easy split. Like many first-generation kids in America, inevitably parts of my home life spilled into my life outside the home and vice versa, informing the way I interacted and expressed myself in both worlds. These divisions created a psychological tension of who I could be and who I felt allowed to be, in addition to how I was received in either world.
Following my college graduation, I finally returned to going by my real name. Amidst the stress and uncertainty that accompanies graduating, finding a job, moving to a new city, and formally entering the real world for the first time, I found comfort in the familiarity of hearing my Nigerian name. Unlike Courtney, which could obscure my identity and ethnic background, I took pride in knowing that white people would be forced to accommodate me and my difference as they tried to wrap their tongues around my unapologetically Nigerian name.
In Trump’s America, choosing to go by my Nigerian first name served as my daily act of resistance against the constant examples of racism and xenophobia permeating the public discourse in ways this country believed we’d defeated.
My graduation coincided with the 2016 presidential election, which was an election that in many ways felt like a referendum on conversations regarding diversity and inclusion in this country. In Trump’s America, choosing to go by my Nigerian first name served as my daily act of resistance against the constant examples of racism and xenophobia permeating the public discourse in ways this country believed we’d defeated.
After college, I found myself in a supportive environment surrounded by colleagues committed to helping me bring my most authentic self to work. They encouraged me to go by my real name when I worried the change would create unnecessary confusion. This supportive reception stoked a renewed confidence to step into the fullness of my maturing voice as a baby adult. Now each time I choose to introduce myself as Oge or offer it up with my lunch order, it feels like a personal triumph — like I’m stepping into the meaning of my name and the legacy my family wished for me at birth.
The transition admittedly hasn’t been clean or easy. I have accounts and subscriptions in my old name, and fringe friends from high school and college who still refer to me as Courtney.
Encouraged by conversations regarding the value of authenticity in the workplace and the importance of building trust with teammates and clients, I made strides to bring my two worlds closer together. Calling someone by their name and making an effort to accurately pronounce it is one way our society can create space for and further normalize the experiences of non-Anglo persons in this country.
Amid continued calls for inclusion as we rapidly accelerate towards an increasingly majority-minority society, it is on each of us to at least lead with curiosity rather than sustained resistance and discomfort as we work to find ways to achieve harmony in this multiracial society.
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