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  • Writer's pictureRachel Abel

Rachel's Take - Reclaiming My Name

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

I knew this would be hard to write but it turned out to be a lot harder than I could have ever imagined.

In my family, I'm the first born. But it wasn't always that way. Before my mama had me, she had a little girl and then twin boys. I’m a rainbow baby. I come from a family of faith so there was a lot of prayer for my safe arrival. One of the women in my parents’ prayer circle gave my parents a name for me.

Niyikiza (Nee-kee-zah).

Niyikiza means: God who heals, saves, delivers and redeems.

Pretty powerful stuff.

So, before I ever made it earthside my parents called me Niyikiza. When I was born, I was given my paternal grandmother’s name, Rachel, as my middle name. I was 7 when we moved to Scotland and from what I can remember, I’d always gone by both names. My mama called me Niyikiza or Niyo and my daddy called me Rachel.

My relationship with my names began to change after the perpetual mispronunciation of my name by my teachers. The constant feeling of being othered was overwhelming. Soon I started the ‘just call me Rachel’ routine. This continued well into my teen years.

Teenage years are hard enough without having to endure constant butchering of your name in front of the entire class. By then I’d mastered the art of getting to the teacher before they started reading the register to make sure we all knew I was going by my middle name. Substitute teachers used to cause me moments of panic as I scrambled to get to them before they got to my name. My ‘just call me Rachel’ routine was getting tiring at this point. I was getting even more agitated with the ‘is that your REAL name?’ ‘is that your English name?’ questions.

I’ve never used Rachel as a replacement. Ever. If you know me, you know I'm a daddy’s girl through and through. I am so proud and honored to carry my grandmother’s legacy as a very real part of my identity.

The thing is, when you already feel othered by the color of your skin, the last thing you need or want is to feel othered by name-based microaggressions. 8, 14, 18 year old me did not have the tools I have today to deal with the impact of all of this. I also struggled with an Oreo complex most of my life but that’s a story for another day. Needless to say, all this culminated in me changing my name at 18. I dropped Niyikiza and just went by Rachel.

I never seriously thought about that decision until I started my journey on reclaiming my roots in 2018. That was when I began to feel the regret and guilt. I ignored it, pushed past it and then 2020 happened. I read an article by an actor announcing that he was reclaiming his birth name, having been inspired by the recent discussions on race and that’s when the dam broke.

I had so many questions. I still do. Mainly how could I have done such a thing? On FaceTime with my sisters ‘why did you let me do that?!’ Them: ‘we tried to stop you’. I wish I could say I began to furiously unpack, unlearn and relearn but this was the middle of summer 2020. That era of 2020 was almost unbearable for me. But I knew one thing for sure: I wanted to reclaim my name. How? I’m still figuring that out. And that’s ok.

In the few months that I’ve sat in the discomfort of the decision I made years ago, I have learned that I need to give myself grace. The teenage girl who made that decision did so to protect herself. She didn’t have the tools I have today to do better. That doesn’t make it easier to forgive myself but it helps me understand why.

Photo by Erin Hodgkinson

I’ve never hated the color of my skin but somehow I learned to hate my name. Decolonizing your mind is hard work. I have started that journey. It’s not easy and honestly, most of the time it’s just plain painful. But I know that if I can learn to hate something I never used to hate, I can unlearn that taught hate. I don’t know how long the journey will be but I’m glad to be on it because I know a new kind of freedom I’ve never felt before lies on the other side. Until that day, I am learning to be patient with myself. Give grace to my younger self and be proud of the me I am becoming.

So, hi, my name is Niyikiza Rachel Abel.


Next up - Reclaiming Black Men

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