Thursday

black-sounding names and white-sounding names

The always obnoxious John Stossel is apparently doing a report on 20/20 this week looking at discrimination against "black sounding names" like Shamiqua and Jamal. Here's his LIST OF THE WHITEST AND BLACKEST SOUNDING NAMES.

I will admit that I do love the old Anglo classics (my children are named Henry, Jane and Elliot ;-)), but if I were a black mama, I would have serious reservations about naming my child something that has a history associated with slave ownership only a couple of generations ago. You know?

Black Americans were given names like "Elizabeth" and "Robert" (and Henry, Jane and Elliot ) when they were forcibly brought to English speaking countries. But those weren't their real names. This practice of assigning an Anglo name to a black slave was actually sort of similar to Jews being tatooed by the Nazis. These Anglo names were attached to black Africans brought to the U.S. and other English countries because it stripped them of their real names and made them easier for their oppressors to identify.

So black parents today face a bit of a naming dilemma. Because so many don't have access to their actual family histories, they don't have much to draw on in terms of giving their children meaningful, family names. So they've created a new type of name for their kids. And now John Stossel says little girls named Tanishia and boys named Terique will eventually be at an immediate disadvantage in the job market. They are more likely to lose out on jobs and promotions to the kids with names like William and and John and Molly. So basically, black parents are screwed either way you slice it. They can either give their "white" names that have an ugly association for them, or they are messing up their kids' chances for success.

I suspect that this bias will change in only another generation or two. There was a time when a name that sounded "too Irish," like Bridget, could put a kid at risk for discrimination. And Jewish Americans have a long history of changing their names to sound less Jewish. That rarely happens these days because Jewish and Irish-sounding names are no longer an obvious disadvantage.

As more Condoleezas make their way into our national consciousness, "black-sounding" names will become less and less of a disadvantage or even an issue.

I hope.

13 comments:

Suzette said...

I used to teach at an inner city all black high school, I am blonde and blue-eyed. My name (not really Suzette) is an old Biblical name and my students thought it was really odd. But we had several conversations about names because I was pregnant at the time. The students feelings were generally that they did not want a "white" name or a "common" name like Bill or John. They wanted a unique name. One that sounded "black" But they also picked several lovely names for my unborn child. They felt my child should be named something Norwegian sounding, like "Kirsten" or traditional like "Katherine". I found that really interesting.

Sarada said...

Dominique is a boy's name? Is it being pronounced the same as Dominic?

All of the Africans I've met have names like "Peter" or "Lawrence" so I feel black parents should be able to use "white" names without feeling their selling out if they want to. From what I understand, whether or not black parents choose "black" or "white" names for their children rather makes a statement within their community. That is probably the case within other ethnic groups as well.

Anonymous said...

My son and I are white Southern-Appalachians. His name is Willie!
becky

dedanaan said...

Well, even among Anglos, you can sometimes tell where someone's from. How many American males named Nigel, Trevor, Calum, Ian, or Simon have you known? Or girls named Seonaid, Mauvie, Dora, or Dierdre?

spiney said...

Sarada said...
Dominique is a boy's name? Is it being pronounced the same as Dominic?

Maybe an homage to Atlanta Hawks great Dominique Wilkins?

jon said...

"My son and I are white Southern-Appalachians. His name is Willie!"

I thought he was "Will" now.

;-)

Kelly said...

Actually, Irish names are pretty trendy now. I know lots of children under the age of five named Ian, Aidan, Declan and Collum. The trend is lesser for the girls, but I do still know a few Maeves and Niamh.

Anonymous said...

Jon,
To Mama, he will always be Willie. But you are correct, he has voluntarily switched his name to what he feels is the older and more sophisticated sounding "Will".
becky

Anonymous said...

Off topic. My naming pet peeve is the current trend of naming girls either traditional boys' names or surnames.

Take, for instance, all the girls being named Reese.

Cary said...

Have you read "Freakonomics"? It has an interesting chapter on this topic.

Cary said...

Oh - if I had clicked through to the article, I'd know that it already refers to Freakonomics. Sorry.

spiney said...

I taught school for about ten years.
Best name: Quavis.

Anonymous said...

rule of thumb: if anyone has a pet with that name...DONT DO IT.
although I have always liked the name Tabitha and always thought if I had another daughter that would be it.