What’s in a name? Lots apparently

“When you’re a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman named LaKiesha, life can get complicated.” 

So begins an excellent CNN.com story that continues: “Strangers burst out laughing when you tell them your name. Puzzled white people ask what your parents were thinking. Black people wonder if you’re trying to play a bad joke.”

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LaKiesha Francis

The story’s headline is “What it’s like to be a white woman named LaKiesha,” and what follows by reporter John Blake is a probing, provocative account of life for a very white LaKiesha Francis in small-town Ohio because of her exotic birth name, and what it means when a white person has a “black” name and a black person has a “white” name. 

“We hear a lot about what are known as ‘black-sounding’ names these days,” Blake writes. “What LaKiesha has discovered is that the names of Americans are as segregated as many of their lives. There are names that seem traditionally reserved for whites only, such as Molly, Tanner and Connor. And names favored by black parents, such as Aliyah, DeShawn and Kiara. … But when you move through life with a name that violates those racial and ethnic boundaries, LaKiesha has found that people will often treat you as an imposter.”

unnamed-file.jpgFurther proof of name prejudice and name politics is this 2006 ABC report on “whitest” and “blackest” names:

“Studies of résumés found that people with black-sounding names are less likely to get callbacks. ABC put 22 pairs of names to the test, posting identical résumés except for the names at the top. The résumés with the white-sounding names were actually downloaded 17 percent more often by job recruiters than those with black-sounding names.”

Toxic and pernicious, let’s call this what it is: flagrant racism. Both of these articles are so powerful and troubling on their own — do click their links — that I have little of substance to add to them. My reactions are as visceral as intellectual, and putting them into words would likely be messy.

Yet I have my own modest story about appropriating a so-called black name. A long time ago I bought a white and ginger pet rat. I named her LaShonda for no greater reasons than I thought it was cute and cheeky. And fitting. Like her, it was adorable, full of spirit.

But then I started second-guessing the name. What would vets and their receptionists think when I brought in a white rodent named LaShonda? When I told friends her name the response was usually laughter. What had I done? Was I making fun of a black name? Or, as I believed, was I giving my pet the coolest name I could think of? (I thought of changing it, but LaShonda mysteriously died in her cage after only three weeks.)

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This is actually Tammy the rat, but she is practically a twin of the late LaShonda.

Would LaShonda have faced the same backlash LaKiesha Francis does? Would she have been treated as an imposter, her job applications put at the bottom of the pile because of her exotic moniker? Would she have been bullied by other rats? Would she have legally changed her name to Carol or Gertrude? Would she have resented me for putting so much social pressure on her?

“It can be exhausting constantly explaining yourself to white people, even though you’re white,” writes Blake. I believe it. LaKiesha and LaShonda “sound” black, but expectations are upended, confusion reigns and mockery and resentment are possible outcomes.  “A name isn’t just a name, according to history and social science,” Blake says. “Give someone the wrong name and it can become a burden.”

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