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In the spring of 2017, I noticed that young Black people on social media were referring to congressperson Maxine Waters as “Auntie Maxine.” It was a nickname given in response to her witty, acerbic, and wise comments about Donald Trump. A digital public sphere, horrified by his behavior, delighted in Waters’ giving him hell.
That nickname was a harbinger of something that has since become widespread: a renewed use in public of the word auntie in reference to Black women. I must admit, I didn’t like it at first. I was irritated that a congressperson was being called “Auntie” instead of by her professional title. That is a sign of my own formalism, rooted in the culture of the Black South. I am always wary of those who might diminish the hard-earned professional standing of a Black person.
But I noticed that Waters embraced the term. And she was not, in fact, diminished by it. Rather, it was a means by which she signaled to young people that she was accepting her appointed role as their advocate and representative in a difficult political era. She was the one who would not be cowed by a boorish and bigoted president and party.
However, over the past five years, a number of other distinguished Black women have rejected being called Auntie. They include Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, actor Taraji Henson, singer Mary J. Blige, poet and novelist Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. Though each woman has described her own reasons for rejecting the term, the common thread is the history of older Black women being referred to as Auntie by white people during slavery and Jim Crow. It was, in that context, at once a sign of age and a mark of diminishment. Black women were deemed unworthy of being called Mrs. or ma’am, or, as we say in U.S. Black English, “putting a handle on their names.”
In response to that insult, in the Jim Crow South it became common for Black people to refer to respected elders as Miss or Mr. followed by a first name, if the person was well known, and to maintain the formality of a last-name designation in general. They jealously guarded these markers of respect in defiance of the ways the larger society denied them respect at every turn.
Other reasons auntie has been rejected is that the term is considered too familiar, assuming a connection that doesn’t exist. And some have spoken out about an implicit ageism in the term, and feeling that to be called an auntie means you must perform some kind of caretaking or advisory service for younger people. Auntie suggests “older than me,” and that can feel like a red flag.
When these and other Black American women say they don’t want to be called “Auntie” in public, a common response is to tell them that in most of the Black world (Africa and the Caribbean) as well as Asian cultures, auntie is a respectful term for an elder. In those cultural contexts, auntie is not intended as an insult. It is a sign of appropriateness and a different kind of formalism. And even if it is suggestive of the sexism that exists in nearly every culture when it comes to the place of older women, in these global cultural traditions, auntie is notably different from the racist auntie language in the history of the United States.
Moreover, even in the Black American context, our traditions of “fictive kinship”—which refers to how we create networks of family that are neither biological nor legal, but made up of deeply respected social relations—are such that we sometimes also use the word auntie to describe people who are not members of our biological or legal families. But unlike in other parts of the world, this is not usually a general term, but rather a term that goes along with a specific forged relationship.
The way the global use of the word auntie is colliding with our domestic history reveals how much social media has pushed us to think beyond the boundaries of our nation state. We aren’t just talking to people who share our citizenships or identities. There are active discussions beyond the boundaries of the nation about the contours of Blackness.
Of course, Blackness is endlessly varying and vast. There are common threads, but there is also plenty of conflict. There are misunderstandings and projections of stereotypes that lead people from every perspective to dig in their heels. The different social meanings of auntie teach us something important about language. Nouns, especially those that express a relationship, aren’t simply abstract concepts. Those words are contextual. The meanings behind their utterance depend upon the habits and dispositions of their speakers and listeners. To designate something as an insult or praise because of a stated intention or perception is too simplistic. I’m afraid if we really want to “get” language, we have to hold space for contested and conflicted meanings.
That said, it should go without saying that regardless of intent, we ought to know not to call people by terms that they reject. Period. Nobody is your auntie who says she does not want to be your auntie, and it is disrespectful to tell her she must be. But once we set that aside, a revealing tension remains.
Auntie is a word that comes with baggage, and young Black people calling Black women over 40 years old “Auntie” in the public arena are not carrying that baggage. An “auntie” in popular parlance is defined by being independent, attractive, and powerful. Moreover, I think by using auntie we are called to challenge the assumptions that go along with mother. Mothers, and Black mothers in particular, are so often expected to be long-suffering people in eternal service.
So I am interested in what it means to name a social role for an older woman who is seen as liberated and not defined by caretaking. Reels on IG and posts on TikTok celebrate aunties. They are the women who come into family gatherings unfettered and free to express themselves fully. They may or may not be in the kitchen. They claim their own identities. They do not require a husband or children to be valued, though they may have both. They are shown dancing, playing cards, and telling stories. The depiction, for me, feels freeing precisely because according to cultural norms, Black women of a certain age are not expected to prioritize their own interests, desires, and well-being. “Aunties” don’t play that. Aunties are fun. Aunties are playful. Aunties give advice with candor, something mothers often hesitate to do, because they are preserving the illusion of parental respectability.
Young Black people are living in a challenging moment. The rise in white-supremacist ideology and violence in the past decade, combined with the backlash against younger generations’ exploration of sexuality and gender identity, the reality of their economic precarity, and the trauma of a global pandemic, weighs heavily on young people. And I think many of them are crafting or imagining fictive kinship bonds with public figures because they’re looking for connection and guidance on not just an intellectual level, but an emotional one, too. They seek to be anchored in a society that seems to revel in their culture without valuing their lives. They do want something from us older folks—something that no one is required to give. But that desire comes with an expression and appreciation for the elders who have their necks out in a difficult time, or those who can just bring some joy and levity to heavy seasons.
So, I’ve grown tender when it comes to auntie. But I’m still watching and vigilant when it comes to language. In the 21st century, much of the Black popular culture unfolds before a global digital public. So much so that there are constant conversations about how to protect Black cultural exchanges from the voraciousness of the mainstream. Companies are all too eager to access the “cool” in Black culture without recognition, appreciation, or compensation. People partake and distort meanings from cultures they neither fully understand nor respect.
The point is this: Language is always complicated in heterogeneous societies. And on the internet it is even more complicated because digital communities are porous and amorphous. We often don’t have any idea to whom we are speaking or listening, or whether we share a cultural, political, or generational common ground with that person. People of Generation X and older (perhaps even some elder Millennials) are not digital natives, and the skepticism we have toward avatars whom we cannot place in the analog world is significant.
So, even if we celebrate the “auntie” archetype, we ought to consider how the word fits in this immense linguistic landscape. Because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. No matter its new meaning, its old meanings can be easily dredged up when conversations don’t happen exclusively in Black communities, or in communities in which Black experience and identity are valued. Paying attention to this is important.
And that risk may also contribute to why some public figures do not want to be called "Auntie," regardless of the person or intent behind it. These women who have worked hard to achieve a certain professional status have a reason to guard it jealously, given the long-standing American habit of making Black women the mules of the world.
But I feel differently, at least for now. I have children who are 18 and 15 years old. Over the course of their lives, they have challenged me consistently about my ideas of propriety and call out moments when my formalism is misdirected because something more important is at stake. Because of the ways they have taught me, when I find a new turn of phrase or concept jarring, I try to spend time thinking about it rather than following my knee-jerk reaction. Because if I am to be of use to young people, I must understand where they’re coming from.
And I do believe I have a responsibility to young people, generally, and specifically to young Black people. What I have learned and what I am able to do with my life is the product of prior generations’ labor and commitment. I must pay it forward.
In reality, not many people call me "Auntie." Professionally, people call me "Dr." or "Professor." I don’t expect a “handle” from peers my age. But the young people in my family also mostly call me "Imani," just like I grew up calling my aunties by their first names. (Unlike some Black American families we didn’t make a big deal of handles and titles.) But there are a handful of children to whom I am auntie, by family or fictive kinship. And when they say “Auntie” or “Titi” or “Tati,” what I hear is gratitude and love. And I am grateful in return. So now, when the word comes from a young Black person I don’t know, but who clearly is grateful for what I’m sharing and understands that my lifework is in large measure motivated by love for them, I absolutely feel honored to be their “auntie.”