SO-Called Ghetto Names

I have been following a story published at Racialicious about an incident wherein the names of students in a yearbook where changed to so-called ghetto names.  The story was first publicized by the Los Angeles Times.  The school resolved the issue by printing stickers, and telling the students to place them over the offensive names in the book.

I understand that what happened in this incident was racism.  Yes the editor that used these so-called “places holders”,  Tay Tay Shaniqua,” “Crisphy Nanos” “Laquan White,”intentionally attempted to demean someone based on their skin colour, and ethnicity. In a way it was like saying that black names are cartoon made up names that don’t matter.

A name, especially a first name is a huge part of ones identity, and to be referred to by another name is dismissive, however to specifically find issue because these names were considered “black names” is where the problem arises for me. I waffled back on forth until I read this blog entry by Jimi Izrael (yes I know I had promised to stop reading him)

“Now, this all has led to some talk about white people learning to respect the names some of us can give our children. I dunno about that. I think it’s complicated. I expect white people–black people too, for that matter–to address me in the way I choose to be recognized–which is a very basic respect–and some of us wear names for spiritual reasons, and that’s cool. But I think they are rightly mystified when they run across kids with names like “LeQuinta” “Lexxus,” Maxima” or “Versachi.” I am too.”

“Why do some of us give our kids crazy names, and act surprised when they meet a lot of class and color prejudice in the world? Why don’t we put more stock into the way we name our children.”

The last two sentences really speak to the heart of the issue.  The idea that these names are crazy and deserving of ridicule, as well as the assumption that these names are given without thought, are my focus.  Many blacks are actively searching for a connection with a long lost identity.  The names that we have today are not our names, they are the names of the white slave masters that owned our families. This is why Malcolm Little, became Malcolm X.  Straying from traditional Anglo Saxon names is an attempt to redress the wrongs of history. It is a method of asserting a culturally positive identity in a world that continually constructs us as other.

Since black people have had the ability to name their children they have been asserting the right to endow their names with a sense of unique identity.  Today when we hear the names Oprah, Denzel, Condoleeza, Kareem, Shamar and Barack, do we think of them as oddities, or do we see them for the high achievers that they are?  Do we associate these names with poverty and backwardness?  In a wider social discourse without the fame and achievement we would think that these individuals were less than simply because of a name.  In truth the issue is not really the name, the issue is that anything associated with blackness is viewed as backward, and ignorant in the western world.  It is the body baring the name that is the problem and not the name itself.  Realizing the scourge that a “black” sounding name can be to achievement in this world I gave Mayhem and Destruction “black” names as middle names. I wanted them to have a connection with their culture, but I did not want them to face more stigmatization than necessary.  I simply did  not have the courage of my convictions.

Studies have shown that resumes with black sounding names don’t get called for job interviews as often.  This can have a lifetime effect on ones earning potential. It allows people to act on their racism without being obvious about it. It takes a parent with real courage to give their child a “black” name as a first name as it is an indicator of not only racial pride, but a conscious decision to say that difference is not only acceptable, it is something to celebrate.  When we look down on others that refuse to conform to Anglo Saxon hegemony in child naming we are internalizing once again a hatred of black identity and culture. Trying to turn it into a class issue is meant to obscure the very real presence of the racial dynamics at play. Black parents from across the economic spectrum participate in unique name giving to their children, and they do so proudly.  I think that it is time we unpack this particular prejudice and recognize it for what it is.  Shaniqua is not bad and neither is the body bearing the name.

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