What’s In A Black Name?

Jan 8 2014 @ 11:03am

Freddie deBoer discusses how kids with characteristically black names become objects of derision:

Being born in 1981 and attending an elementary school that was about a third black, I grew up around many peers who had African or African-inspired names, names like Qualisha and Kamika and Kareem. The mid-80s was a period of racial optimism, in many ways, and a time when the black pride movement had become somewhat depoliticized but far more ubiquitous. I grew up among black children who, whether their parents were poor or middle class, were raised to feel pride in their African heritage, and who expressed that pride in their dress and the way they decorated their homes.

But even then, it was clear that black names were not valued.

I remember many times that substitute teachers would complain openly about their difficulty in pronouncing these “crazy” names. In my class one year, I had peers named Tamisha and Tashima. One sub, incredulous, asked them in front of the class if their parents had planned that out. I’m not quite sure what grade it was, but they couldn’t have been older than 7 or 8 or 9. Looking back, it’s a extraordinarily elegant way to degrade a pair of children, to mock their names, and with them, their identities. And it was also one of the countless little ways in which white kids like myself, whatever the good intentions of teachers and parents, were subtly indoctrinated to believe in black inferiority.

Like so much within racism, this disrespect towards black names carries with it the most important tool in an ostensibly post-racial but actually deeply racist culture: plausible deniability. That sub, I’m sure, did not think she was being racist. She was merely reacting to the oddity of those names! She was not ridiculing those children. She merely thought there was something uniquely funny about their names.

One of Freddy’s readers isn’t so sure:

There is some oversimplification going on in this post, along with a large grain of truth. A lot of middle-class black people also laugh at names like Sharkeisha and Latrina–but their own children might bear real African names like Kweku or Thandiwe. You can project self-loathing racism on them if you want. I wouldn’t. At lot of middle-class white people laugh at “soap opera names”: Madisons and the like. (If you look at such names on the SSN website, you’ll see that they go out of vogue in about 10-15 years–basically laughed out of existence.) To make the parallel more precise, I have heard another term for “soap opera names”: “trailer park names.” In either case, girls have it worse than boys. You can argue that Latrinas have it worse than Madisons, and you’re probably right. But I’m not sure I would build a charge of racism on such flimsy foundations, not when classism explains almost as much.

There is better evidence for name racism. It comes not from a weird black name like Sharkeisha, but rather a non-weird black name like Tyrone. Many more people laugh at Tyrone Jackson’s given name than Tyrone Power’s.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes a weird name is just a weird name.