In many places around the world—from India to Africa to Hawaii—placing the title “Auntie” or “Aunty” before someone’s name who is not your actual aunt is seen as a sign of respect. It’s also common in Black culture here in America—for instance, when an older Black woman achieves something great, on Twitter, you can expect to see plenty of tweets reading: “Yasssss, Auntie So-and-So!”
We can all agree that it’s best to be respectful of our elders—after all, in her time, Dr. Maya Angelou didn’t hesitate to correct any youths who called her by her first name. But in a recent interview, When They See Us director Ava DuVernay sparked a debate about whether or not calling someone who is not of a certain age Auntie should be considered ageist.
During a sit down for Van Lathan’s podcast The Red Pill, DuVernay admitted she doesn’t love it when she sees people call her “Auntie Ava” on Twitter.
“Auntie Ava? Why? Am I that old?!” she asked. (For the record, the Oscar-nominated director is 46.) “Because I don’t feel that old! And it’s not a respect thing…Auntie Ava, like…Aunt Jemima?”
We had a feeling Ava might not be the only one in her friend group to take issue with the “Auntie” moniker—so we asked her friends Oprah and Gayle how they feel about it. And they had thoughts.
“I cringe being called Auntie or Mama by anybody other than my nieces or godchildren,” Oprah says. “Except if I’m in Africa, where it’s the custom for everybody to refer to anyone older as ‘Sister,’ or ‘Auntie,’ depending on the age difference. And there, no one refers to anyone older by their first name, out of respect.”
“I get that it’s a sign of respect, but no one’s calling Beyoncé Auntie Beyoncé!”—Gayle
Gayle added that she thinks the appropriate age to start using the title Auntie for an elder is somewhere around…85.
“I hate being called Auntie. That’s what you say to old people or the old lady who lives in the neighborhood!” says our editor at large. “I get that it’s a sign of respect, but no one’s calling Beyoncé ‘Auntie Beyoncé!’ The only ones who should be calling me ‘Aunt’ are my niece and nephew—and they don’t add the ie.”
As for what this trio would prefer to be called instead? Gayle responded “Gayle works!” while Oprah said: “Oprah has worked pretty well for me. Though sometimes strangers refer to me as Lady O, which feels friendly, yet respectful of the age difference. It feels appropriate.” And on Twitter, DuVernay shared that she “happily responds” to names like “Ms. DuVernay,” “Sis,” and “Queen.”
So there you have it. That’s Queen DuVernay, Gayle, and Lady O to you.