Ava DuVernay Says Don’t Call Her Auntie

Have you seen “When They See Us” yet? I heard it’s fabulous, and it’s so accessible. Currently playing on Netflix, you don’t even have to leave your phone to see the series. The snippets of media I’ve absorbed have praised the young actors, the attention to detail, director Ava DuVernay’s masterful storytelling, everything. 

I haven’t watched it yet because I have to be in the right frame of mind to see this kind of story, you know? We see it so often – black lives ruined for no reason, railroaded by the legal system, locked up until their futures waste away as though they mean nothing, only to be vindicated and have the phrase “better late than never” become a cruel anti-joke – this story from April 1989 seems disarmingly familiar today.  

But what did strike me as bloggable was DuVernay’s assertion during an interview that she doesn’t care to be called auntie. I hear that. No one’s ever done it to me, but I cringe whenever I hear strangers being so familiar. 

It’s not just the word auntie either. In the same vein, honey, baby, these are not words I want to hear from a stranger. I understand that in this reference auntie is likely tendered with a measure of respect. It’s almost certainly not intended to be insulting. But it’s still cringe-worthy and, ironically, for me it’s just the teeniest bit disrespectful. 

I think there should be some foundation for a familiar moniker like that. A person should need more than skin color, gender, even to share appreciation for art or some other powerful perspective to create a meaningful connection, right? Maybe I’m being a virgo. Or maybe that word meaningful is the kicker. 

I rate that kind of informality up there with strangers touching you. It’s almost always harmless, but it’s still a crossed boundary in my opinion. To put your hands on another person’s body? I am such a virgo, but the term auntie should have some meaning, some feeling behind it. Shouldn’t it? It literally means a close blood relative. Should it be used so casually? To do so seems to diminish it in some way.

This informal use of language makes me think of how South Koreans speak, or rather, how they don’t speak. I’ve gotten into the culture a bit in preparation for a trip, and they use language quite formally. From what I’ve learned, they use the term auntie to refer to an older woman, often a stranger, as DuVernay would be for most of us.

I’m no expert, certainly. As an American I’m also not advocating that we switch to using honorifics as a rule, as is South Korean custom, but there is something inherently satisfying about their practice of inviting each another to speak informally. It says, “I like you. I want to get to know you better. Please, take this step closer.”

DuVernay, the creator of a piece of art so powerful, Linda Fairstein, the lead prosecutor in the Central Park Five case, had to get off social media because backlash from “When They See Us” was so strong, deserves the right to issue that invitation. I would be prepared to wait patiently for that acknowledgement. Her use of language, her intimate dissection of it as a lever to assign criminality, to shape a narrative and push a completely inaccurate picture of wrong behavior through the media and ultimately the courts – yeah. I wouldn’t call her auntie. 

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