Recently I worked for a temporary agency contracted with a national bank based in Cincinnati. They processed documents for a specific department within the United States government. It’s detailed work, with precision required in recording names, addresses, and ID numbers.
Needless to say, there were lots of rules and bureaucracy at every level of the organization. Every employee had to pass a fingerprint and background check annually. There were strict limitations on when, how, and where we could work with the records we processed. Also, we had to master the details of processes we are forbidden by law from sharing.
Our ticket to move around on the floor of this factory-style workplace was our badge. We entered the building with a swipe, with someone verifying our face matched the badge, and we entered and exited the floor with a swipe. Certain doors would open — or not open — based on the information held in the chip.
The ID badge contained our photo, an indication of our level of clearance or access, and whether we worked directly for the bank or for an agency.
And of course, the badge prominently displayed our name.
One of my many bank supervisors was a mid-thirties moderately tattooed man that everyone liked because of his cheerful approach to the work. When he had to address the group — say to let us know our lunch time, or if we were about to switch to a different process — he would greet us with a hearty, “Good morning everybody!”
If our response was not enthusiastic enough to meet his standards, he’d widen his eyes in disappointment, and clear his throat. “I said, ‘good morning everybody!’” Every time he did this, the room burst into laughter and he secured our attention.
On quiet days when we’d settled into a stupor and seemed listless, he’d break the monotony by announcing how much he was looking forward to the upcoming Taco Tuesday. He’d stretch the “ew” in Tuesday out into its own sentence, “Hey everybody, Happy Taco Tuuuuueeeeesssday!”
The energy in the room would shift as if we’d all been released from a trance. “Oh that Dante!” someone would say.
One of the older women would scold, “I thought we weren’t supposed to talk.”
It was easy to imagine him as a coach for a young football team in the evenings and weekends. A gaggle of kids circle around him, asking about the neighborhood, looping their hands over the gun tattooed on his left forearm and hanging from his elbow like a jungle gym. He coached all of us, and the “everything is possible with positive energy” mindset exuded from him. Clearly a role model had imbued this cheerful acceptance of any situation in him — a sense that we needed to work cheerfully together, since the other option was to work miserably together.
There were many mysteries around him, including his name.
Everyone called him “Dante.” Like Don + tay. Everyone except for the people who called him “Deonte.” Like Dion + tay. Well, then there were the ones who called him “Tay.” A person from the bank staff introduced him to me as “Dante” one day, before later introducing him to a different new employee as “Deonte.”
So, really, there was general confusion about his name.
His exceptional good nature kept him from correcting anyone. When asked to clarify his name, he’d laugh and say, “People call me everything. You can call me Dante, or whatever you like.”
So I thought about the conversations I had overheard and decided that “Tay” was appropriate not because it was his full name but because it was short for whatever his actual name was. I settled into calling him that. And the days became weeks, and the work continued.
Later that winter I was “promoted” to a job that came with a title, the power to answer questions, and the authority to walk around: Team Lead.
This meant I got to work a bit more closely with bank staff, in a pseudo-supervisory role. One week I found myself paired with Tay every day, doing some behind the scenes lifting, boxing, and batch prepping. More like factory work than bank work, we joked.
The puzzle of his name again arose, and I asked him in my best teacher voice. “Tay, it is important to me that I call you by your right name. I think it’s ‘Deonte’, but your tag says ‘Dante.’ What gives?”
“That badge? My name is …” he pronounced it phonetically for me. “Dee, apostrophe, ON, tay.”
I made a joke by pointing out that the apostrophe was missing from his name tag, “in case you didn’t notice.”
He waved his hand, “Aww that ain’t nothing. This is the badge they printed up, so I wear it. It gets me one the floor.”
“That isn’t right, man. That’s, like, your name. That’s low-key, you know, disrespectful. They spelled ‘Jack’ just fine.” I pointed at my badge as evidence.
He picked up a box. “Naw, it’s a’ight. Like I said, it gets me on the floor. And I don’t really care what they call me, as long as I get to have Taco Tuuueeessssday!”
I knew that he closed the matter there, but it didn’t sit right with me.
Did a multi-million dollar banking corporation that employed thousands of people really not have the tools to figure out how to print an apostrophe in a man’s name?
No. They could do it.
And I puzzled over whether, if he had been white, and not tattooed, he would have been given a badge that spelled his name correctly. I think he would have.
I made some assumptions that I didn’t confirm with him. First, I assumed he hadn’t come up in a traditional two-parent home. His arms bore a series of tattoos that spoke to experience with violence, and the death of close friends and a family member. One tattoo was a hand drawn slang name for a local neighborhood that suggested a gang affiliation.
I wondered if his inexperience in a workplace like this had prevented him from asking about his name tag. Perhaps he thought he’d be labeled a troublemaker or lose his job if, on the first day, he corrected the first person he interacted with about something as small as his name on a badge.
So maybe it was top-down systemic racism that let the company feel they could print his name however they chose, or that prevented their badging system from printing his name correctly.
Maybe it was learned helplessness and modesty that kept him from asking.
We know there are cultural differences in how names are given, or even pronounced. Key & Peele explored this theme in their viral video “Substitute Teacher,” which infamously introduced the world to “A A-Ron.”
Either way, it was wrong, and could be corrected. I resolved to address it with bank staff when I got a chance. There were supervisors to the supervisors, I knew, and any one of them could order a badge to be corrected.
Days passed without a supervisor making it to the floor again.
One morning, D’ante pulled me aside. “Hey man, I wanted you to know, I’m letting a few people know early. I got a new job.” He looked at me earnestly. He enjoyed the people and the work here. He explained that it wasn’t just about a pay boost of fifty cents an hour. His new work site didn’t require a bus transfer, saving him time every day before and after work.
I never asked the question about his nametag to our bosses. I regret not doing it sooner. I wonder if the tag had any impact on his experience, or how he felt about our employer. I wonder if it was worth $.50 an hour.
I do know that it matters. I’ve told this to teachers and secretaries and other staff at my schools for years. We must show respect to each other in every detail. A person’s name isn’t merely a detail, it’s the most important thing.
That’s why we need to look for D’ante’s name tag everywhere.
How do we show respect to our students, our clients, our customers, our employees? In every detail, in every way. We need to be guided by core values that, at their root, value each person for who they are. And that starts with their name.
Originally published at https://thebestwordsllc.com on May 8, 2021.