Education

Tay Anderson to Auon’tai M. Anderson: DPS Veep's Birth-Name Reclaim

A portrait of Auon'tai M. Anderson.
A portrait of Auon'tai M. Anderson. Auon'tai M. Anderson Twitter
Call him Auon’tai M. Anderson. That's the request of the man formerly known as Tay Anderson.

As Tay Anderson, he's been one of the biggest newsmakers in Denver in recent years, thanks to his unsuccessful run for Board of Education at Denver Public Schools as a teenager; a second bid that ended with him becoming the youngest person ever elected to the panel at the age of 21 (now 24, he's the board's vice president); incendiary claims of sexual impropriety that led to a months-long independent investigation that found insufficient evidence of the most serious charges against him but chided him for questionable social-media behavior; and a passel of additional controversies, including his recent tweeting of an email dubbing him too weak to commit suicide that the group accused of sending deems a fake.

Since practically everything Anderson does is controversial, it's no surprise that his announcement last month about his name preference, complete with an emphasis on the middle initial, has caused a stir in some quarters. For instance, the conservative blog Colorado Peak Politics accused him of trying to go "Google undercover" in order to distance himself from certain actions, including early September reports of him being ticketed for speeding in a school zone.

But Anderson's version of events, which he's also shared in an online essay, is very different.

"I recently had an interaction with somebody who was searching for a different name to use for my son because they couldn't pronounce 'Khalil,'" he says. "It dawned on me that in order to be a good role model for my son, it was imperative for me to do the same as a father and reclaim my birth name. And it brought back a lot of the reasoning of why I condensed my name in the first place."

According to Anderson, the switch "originally was not by choice. It was a teacher in elementary school who was going through roll and couldn't pronounce my name — and so she called me 'Tay.' And I didn't feel I could push back and say I wasn't comfortable with that change and I wouldn't like to be referred to in that nature. From there, it went to classmates who were not willing to utilize the correct spelling or pronunciation of my name; they would call me 'Tai' [pronounced "tie"]. So I dropped the 'i' and added a 'y,' because my name is pronounced 'A-on-tay,' and if they were going to call me anything other than my birth name, 'Tay' was better than "Tai.'"
click to enlarge
Denver Public Schools is now using Anderson's birth name online and beyond.
When he moved toward what he refers to as "public life," Anderson continues, "I wanted to be called 'Auon'tai.' But I was told nobody was going to elect a Black man with a complicated name and I needed to use my abbreviated name, Tay, instead of Auon'tai. I didn't have a lot of experience in politics at that point, and folks who did said, 'You have to shorten your name for people to even take you seriously. They're not going to know what's on a yard sign if you use Auon'tai.' So I used Tay, and I've been using it for a lot of my life."

Nonetheless, the idea of leaving Auon'tai behind always bothered him, he says, and he chose to begin using it again based on the inspiration of two women: The Equity Project founder Dr. Dwinita Mosby-Tyler, the subject of a February 2021 9News piece about why she had stopped shortening her first name to 'Nita,' and the late Dr. Sharon R. Bailey, a former DPS school-board member who saw the power in middle initials.

Anderson says he hopes the swap will make him "a role model for my child and also for students at DPS with unique names who shouldn't be afraid to utilize their birth name" — and he feels supported in his efforts by the school district. He asked that his birth name be used on the DPS website and any published materials going forward, "and they've done so without hesitation. And I've also had people reach out, from students to adults, telling me they're going to start utilizing their original names as well."

For the most part, "it's been an easy switch, but it's been difficult for some folks," Anderson notes. "I was at a Colorado Association of School Boards meeting this past weekend, and an individual from eastern Colorado pointed at me and said 'Him' instead of saying my name. And my colleagues said, 'No, his name is Auon'tai,' which is the kind of allyship I'm grateful for."

The conclusions reached by Colorado Peak Politics and others on the political right don't surprise him. "I always knew the GOP would make their own excuses, and it's disappointing that people cannot just respect my wishes." he says. And while he's seeking reelection to the board in 2023, he insists that "this isn't about politics. This is about reclaiming my identity. Whether it's a political advantage or disadvantage is up to the voters to decide."

In the meantime, he's exploring whether it's possible to include a pronunciation reference on ballots to help voters properly say his name: Auon'tai M. Anderson.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

Latest Stories