A Rose by Any Other Name

People have opinions about my name. I’ve known this from the time I was a little kid. Grown-ups would say, “What a beautiful name!” and I would say, “Thank you,” even though I had nothing to do with it. I was grateful I wasn’t one of the many Ryans and Jennifers and Michelles populating my 1980s elementary school classrooms. I liked having a unique name. At the same time, when I found a baby names book in which my mother had marked “Angharad” as a possible name for the fetus that would be me I was also grateful that my parents had gone another direction. I actually really like “Angharad,” but I figured it was a name that got mangled a lot, at least outside of Wales. In my late 20s I met an Angharad who confirmed this hypothesis. Even with the name I have, people sometimes correct me. “You mean Cherokee?” they say. “Oh, you mean Chastity? Cherry? Jeremy?” And really, unless it’s something official, I just agree with them, because what does it really matter anyway?

Through the years—most recently just last week when I had to call about a missing item in a Petco order—people have said, “I love your name!” and I say, “Thank you” and sometimes, “I’ll tell my mom,” and it feels a little weird, but it’s just a dance we do. In the past decade or so, though, I’ve come to realize that people also have a lot of assumptions about my name, or rather, about the person who has my name. When I lived in Utah, my first name and phone number were on our La Leche League webpage listing names of Leaders offering phone support for breastfeeding concerns. I quickly began getting dozens of calls each month, which, being new to the area, I assumed was just the norm for this group. During a Leader meeting a few months in, the other Leaders mentioned that all of a sudden they were getting hardly any calls while I continued to be swamped. I started asking moms who called me how they chose to call me rather than one of the other Leaders. The answer was always some variation on, “I saw your name and I thought you would be nice/helpful/kind/good to talk to.” I wasn’t sure how to feel about this unearned trust.

Outside of La Leche League, I hadn’t really paid much attention to what people thought of my name. Occasionally, people think that “Charity” is some kind of honorific or pseudonym and that my actual name is something else, but I just explain the situation, and I think that clears it up.

But things feel different since the pandemic started. In the past year that I’ve been spending more time on social media and other online forums, I’m seeing more commenters with my name, and with rare exception, they are not the kind of people with whom I wish to share a name. The bizarre, hateful, illogical, conspiracy-theory-laden comments these other Charitys leave makes me cringe. I feel tempted to comment just to let people know that not all of us share the same views. The Ryans and Melissas and Jennifers I talk to shrug when I mention this, accustomed as they are to having all different types of people sharing their name, and maybe that’s part of it, a reaction to finding more people called the same thing that I am, but I don’t think that’s all of it. If that were the case, if Charitys represented a cross-section of society, it would still take some getting used to, but I think I wouldn’t feel so weird about it, but as far as I can tell, most of them, or at least the most vocal of them, are not saying the kinds of things I want people assuming I think. These Charitys do not accurately represent me.

So, recognizing this, what are my options?

Well, I could keep going like I’m going, doing my best to represent a different viewpoint, to diversify the Charity pool a little and confront others with their assumptions about what a Charity is like. This is a simple solution that doesn’t involve me doing anything differently. The only downside is that I continue to be assumed to be someone who holds opinions with which I disagree.

But I wonder, how have these assumptions affected my relationships and interactions throughout my life? Have they influenced which people choose to get to know me better as they once influenced new mothers to call my number instead of the Kellys and Susans and Melissas listed alongside my name? I’ve always had trouble getting doctors to take me seriously; could assumptions medical professionals make about me based on my name be affecting the kind of care I get? Juliet says a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I tend to agree with Anne Shirley that although it would be the same flower, we’d look at it differently if it were called a thistle or a skunk cabbage. How would people see me differently if I were called something different?

A friend I talked with about this cautioned me that if I like my name, I shouldn’t change it for other people. I’ve considered this point a lot, and I think it’s a valid one. Why should individuals constantly be making changes to themselves because of how society sees them? But my name really isn’t who I am. I don’t call myself by my name inside my head. Inside, I’m nameless. I’m just me. It’s my interactions with others that necessitate a label, and until my recent realizations, it hasn’t mattered to me one way or another what people call me, which is part of why answer to Cherokee and Chastity and Christy and Terry or whatever other name people think I said. As long as I know who they mean, I haven’t really cared. Now that I understand that when people say my name the person they mean often isn’t me or at least isn’t the me I know myself to be, I feel differently. I don’t have a problem with the name Charity, I just wonder how life would be different for me if I were called something with less strong associations.

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