Friday, July 11, 2008

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.


DiosaNegra1967 said...

LOL @ you and "mayhem and destruction" (hopefully those aren't their first names...LOL)

but, seriously...i also agree with the last two lines of mr. izrael's blog entry...

speaking as a woman with a name that is quite disturbing to most's lead to numerous questions about my ethnic background...not to mention the "usual and customary" question:

- was your mother angry at your father when she named you?

or (my favorite)

- do you have one against me? (to which i answer, "no, but the day is still young.")

but, as i said over at racialicious...this is NOT funny...and i don't think this was a "mistake" by any stretch of the imagination!

imagine the furor if this happened at a predominately black school and there were "placeholder" names like "becky" and "buffy mcbuffington, III"?

oh, the humanity!

Renee said...

@diosanegra I am not saying that what happened was not a racist act I am questioning the association of black names with negativity. I firmly believe that the reason society has a problem with the names is based in racism. Think of how many negative things are associated with blackness.
BTW Mayhem and Destruction are my pet names for the boys.

ouyangdan said...

Names are very personal, to the person who carries it and to the person who chose it. You are absolutely right in calling it a racist issue. The people who make fun of these so called "ghetto" names are being such.

Names mean a lot to us. I know I took great labor in choosing my child's name. I had a lot of prerequisites in choosing and ended w/ one I thought was wonderful, and to me it was the best name. I have no reason to believe that a parent chooses a name lightly or that they are stupid or "ghetto" when using any of the names you mentioned. We all have reasons for the names we choose for our children.

Names very much do affect how we are treated. My daughter's name (according to name books) is African, and I thought it was the most beautiful ever, but I have had people ask me why I would give my child a "black" name. I have a traditionally male name, and have met w/ "oh, your parents wanted a boy and all they got was you!" among other neat-o jokes my whole life. I don't believe it is our job to choose better names, but rather it is the responsibility of the rest of us to change our perception and stop being prejudiced against names.

And thanks for coming over for Thursday Blogwhoring. I hope it gets you a few extra hits!

DiosaNegra1967 said...

i am in agreement with you, renee. yep, he reason society has a problem with the names is based in racism...

how many times have we seen the "report" on how resumes with "certain" names get trashed or placed into the "do not call" pile?

for a while, when i was job hunting, i used my first and middle initials....i got more calls than when i used my first name and middle initial....

Danny said...

Names are indeed a very personal thing. And this is why it pisses me off to no end when people call me by my father's name or my brother's name. (My older brother is the first son so he got the Jr. treatment but apparently I look more like my father so I literally cannot count how many times I've heard, "They named you two wrong. You should have been Jr. because you look like your dad.") Would it be wrong of me to snap back with, "Well I wasn't born first so unless you own a Delorian or some other method of time travel just shut the hell up and call me by MY name."

That yearbook editor had not business displaying those names without permission from those kids. As we all agree a name is personal and it should not be scrutinized, ridiculed, or put on display like that. I'd have not problem if the kids wanted to have their alternate names published but to just do it behind their backs is just disrespectful.

Renee said...

@Danny these were not the names of the kids, they were placed in the yearbook to demean them because they are black. The issue that I want to discuss is why we have a tendency to look down on black names.

sam said...

How that yearbook was published is beyond me, and I think it is terrible that names can be ammunition in racist agendas. Also, the school administrators may also be racist themselves given that they are not taking this seriously enough. In my high school, when there was a misprint or new pages for the year (for events that occurred after printing) the pages were mailed to every single student who bought a yearbook; the same thing would have been done to quickly correct an offensive mistake just as it was used to correct benign ones. 2000 kids is not that many, and they can't get their act together, forcing the girl featured in the article to HAND OUT the corrections? What is their problem: they don't have addresses on file or can't afford the postage? Please.

However, I don't think it is doing our culture any favors for anyone of any color to be named after name brands or companies*. I don't believe that helps establish any kind of identity for the person bearing the name either, except for one as a rampant consumer. So in conclusion, "black sounding" names or culturally unconventional names are good; administrators at this school and naming people after cars or nighttime cold medicine, not so much.

* and even though the name far pre-dates the jeans, this goes for the traditionally white boy name Levi too. Further, my dad wouldn't even name me Sarah because of Sarah Lee baked goods. He might be a little paranoid though.

Danny said...

True. Sorry for the sidetrack.

One thing that bothers me is how they "corrected" it. I understand that yearbooks are important students but I recall when I was high school about a school in Florida that used an unauthorized pic of a cartoon character and the entire batch had to be recollected and destryed. But an act of racism is supposed to be fixed with stickers?

From the L.A. Times link:
She said officials were "dealing with the accountability issue at all levels" and had not yet determined whether blame spread to yearbook advisor Bonnie Shockey or multiple students on the staff.

There is plenty of blame to go around. If their yearbook club was anything like mine the advisor delegated responsiblities and they were recorded. In fact the pages in my yearbooks often cited who worked on them. There should be a way to find out who put those names there and who failed to find them in proofreading.

dobes said...

In regards to the yearbook incident. It was totally racist and uncalled for and the kids working in yearbook should be punished somehow, even if they graduated. Maybe have a letter sent to their collge or something. I don't know...

I do have to agree with the last two lines of izrael's blog entry as well. I have to deal with a lot of questions about my name and it's authentically Nigerian so it has a meaning I can spout off if people ask about it. But I really wonder where does a name like De'Quan'dre come from. I honestly don't know. I haven't met any Africans who have names like that. However, having that name does not mean that you're all of sudden poor, living in a ghetto living on a assistance with 8 kids you're not taking care of. I've met and read of plenty of Da'quans and Tynishas who are financial planners, business owners, or successfully involved in a gamut of fields. The name does not dictate the person. But unfortunately, there are a lot of us out there that prove the sterotype.

jimi said...

I don't think I said anything about so-called "funny" names, this is more about names we manufacture.

And thank you reading..

All my best,


Renee said...

@ Jimi "Why don’t we put more stock into the way we name our children."

That is an assumption on your part. The issue here is that the name is looked down upon because of its association with blackness and not necessarily that the name itself is a horrible name..Really how different is Latifah from Melanie or Sarah...the only meaning these names have is the power that we give them as a society.

Danny said...

I have to deal with a lot of questions about my name and it's authentically Nigerian so it has a meaning I can spout off if people ask about it. But I really wonder where does a name like De'Quan'dre come from. I honestly don't know. I haven't met any Africans who have names like that.

I was trying to say something to this effect in a previous comment but chose not to say anything because I was afraid of coming off as offensive. I don't want to sound like a person should have to prove the authenticity of their child's name but I do raise an eyebrow when I hear about kids named Tre'zhon.

However, having that name does not mean that you're all of sudden poor, living in a ghetto living on a assistance with 8 kids you're not taking care of.
Very true.