Please Don’t Call Me ‘Sis’ Unless You’re My Literal Brother
Illustration: Janet Sung

Please Don’t Call Me ‘Sis’ Unless You’re My Literal Brother

We know you mean well, but just… don’t

I’ve been lucky enough to have spent my life raised, surrounded, and loved by amazing Black men. When I was a young child, growing up with Black-and-proud parents, I’d often see men like my dad showing the utmost respect to women, especially Black women. This included greeting them with an honorific like “Sister.” For as long as I can remember, teachers, distant relatives, and family friends called my mom Sister Ree and my aunt Sister Jan. (Some people still call my mom Sister Ree.)

But at some point, and I’m not sure when, that honorific was replaced by a different, shorter, far less honorable one. Just plain Sis.

So let me say, with all the love ever: I really don’t like it when people call me Sis. Especially men.

It took a minute to figure out what irks me about it. And why it’s so much different than Sister. First, using the word Sis is almost always used with criticism, judgment, or both. Particularly online. Once, when I wrote an article about taking medication for an illness, folks hit me in the comments with things like “Sis, you should really think about holistic medicine.”

It seems like the people who call me Sis are also the ones who don’t agree with how I run my life and think they have the right to tell me so. And, of course, they are doing it for my own good.

When I straightened my hair after 25 years of wearing it natural, people I didn’t know felt the need to chime in: “Sis, you should really be in touch with your African features.”

The word is even trotted out when I write about parenting: “Sis, you let your daughter wear nail polish?”

It seems like the people who call me Sis are also the ones who don’t agree with how I run my life and think they have the right to tell me so. And, of course, they are doing it for my own good.

There are men out there who use Sis differently. I have former students who don’t call me Miss King anymore but still don’t feel comfortable calling me by my first name, so they use Sis instead.

For the most part, the usage that really bothers me only happens online. It’s condescending, patronizing — a way to criticize a woman with a degree of familiarity that wouldn’t exist in person.

Yes, I know we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, and we’re lucky there are people alive and breathing to call us anything. And also, usually the men who call me Sis are the men I work for and fight for in this world. They are often what we call “Hoteps,” and while their methods might annoy me, they are my annoying Hoteps. I ride or die.

While writing this piece, I decided to check in with my social media family about addressing an unrelated woman as Sis. Sixty-one men responded. These are cousins, platonic friends, former students, former teachers, and even a few ex-boyfriends. Here’s what I learned from them:

  1. Almost all of the men who responded said they reserve Sis for platonic friends and family members they will protect at all costs. No romantic entanglement whatsoever — past, present, or future. I was surprised by this. Some dudes actually follow this line of thinking, but I’m convinced others are just waiting for their opening, trotting out Sis like a Trojan horse of familiarity.
  2. One dude admitted that he only uses Sis when he’s being condescending. This is how I often receive it. But out of more than 60 responses, only a handful cosigned using Sis in a negative way. Does that mean I’ve been wrong about how this word is used? Or do men just not realize how it sounds to women?
  3. There were a few men who were annoyed by women who don’t like Sis. One person commented that he uses it anyway — even with women who don’t like it — because he feels his intentions are pure. This is problematic. A woman should be called what makes her feel comfortable, no matter a man’s intentions. One of my oldest male friends, a man I’ve known since I was 11 years old, said the only women offended by Sis obviously lack the maturity to accept the term. Ouch.
  4. One of the men I canvassed put it best: “I don’t use Sis. That has baggage that’s best left alone. Feels way too easy to be misconstrued.” Hard agree.

In person, I don’t particularly like the term. But at least with face-to-face interactions, I have more nuance and body language to understand your intentions. In general, calling me by what I prefer is all that’s needed. “Aliya” is just fine.

But if you also call women females — and don’t understand why that’s unacceptable — there’s no hope at all for you… bruh.