Sunday, September 29, 2013

The "Black Name" Hustle

(By Khalid Salaam, The Shadow League, 27 June 2013)

Jabari, Shaniqua, Calasia, Rasul, Mustafa, Imani, Tyquan, Tyesha.
David, Sarah, Sean, Michael, Nicole, James, Samantha, Sarah, Alex.

Two sets of names. Two sets of realities. Ask yourself which one you prefer. How you feel about them says everything about who you are and what you are. Names matter, because a name is often the first thing you learn about a new person and it impacts the shape of things to come.  So, if you think that the names mentioned in the first line are, for instance, “made up” names, I won’t argue with you. In fact, I agree. But I need you to agree with me on this statement: The names in the second line are made up, too. Before we go further, you’ll need to reconcile those thoughts, because all names are made up. Including yours.

When Kanye West and Kim Kardashian revealed their new daughter’s name as North, it set into motion the usual backlash against celebrity names: that they are trying to be different for different’s sake and handcuffing their child to a life of ridicule. Maybe they are, but that’s sort of beside the point. People don’t care about that particular child’s life; they are reacting to their conditioning. A conditioning that says there are only a few acceptable names and anything else is uncivilized.

Conveniently enough, it’s NBA Draft season, where over the last couple of weeks the public has learned the bios of potential new players. Where they’re from, their height and weight, and which position they are projected for are amongst the information gathered. However, the first thing we’ll learn is how to pronounce and spell a new group of names.  Some names will be those of players from overseas, but most will be those of American kids. Not only that, it’s likely that these will be names that you’ve never seen before.  They’re unofficially called “black names.”
Sports fans have become very familiar with these names. Around the late ’80s and early ’90s, we started seeing an influx of Maliks and Jamals, and since then, we’ve seen the proliferation of these names burst into the mainstream. On Thursday, UGA’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will continue the tradition. Over the last dozen years, the NBA has welcomed players with distinguished monikers such as Stromile Swift, Keyon Dooling, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tayshaun Prince, Marreese Speights, Markieff Morris and DeAndre Jordan. Each of the names only representing a small fraction of what has become an increasingly popular phenomenon. The sports world, as has often been the case in American diversity inclusion, is ahead of the curve here. (The NFL PA President is named DeMaurice Smith, after all.)

In April’s NFL Draft, we had a treasure chest of names, arguably hitting the zenith of this movement. Making their respective debuts in the fall will be Cordarrelle Patterson, Sharrif Floyd, Kenjon Barner, Shamarko Thomas and the very awesome Barkevious Mingo.  Having one of these unique names isn’t a deterrent in a career of pro sports. Franchises don’t care what your name is; you have value as long as you have the ability to do your job.  For the rest of the world, however, it’s not nearly as simple.   For Americans, the majority of the names we believe are standard and correct are rooted in Northern European and Protestant ancestry. Handles such as Charles, Robert, William, Diana and Ann are revered for their strength and beauty.  There’s a list of roughly 20 names included in this category of reverence. Virtually unchanged for centuries, these names have lived a charmed, bulletproof existence. Toward the end of the 19th Century and well into the beginning of the 20th (roughly defined as the Industrial Revolution), when scores of people from Eastern and Southern Europe came to America, they brought with them their customs and culture. This included, of course, their names.
More “ethnic” and “exotic” than their already established neighbors, they faced various levels of discrimination. Though it wasn’t a legal mandate, the pressure to assimilate was powerful. Not adopting American culture was seen as disrespectful. However, over the decades, their culture (and names especially) became commonplace and gained admission into the mainstream.  For blacks, there wasn’t a need to change family names for societal inclusion. Being “let in” wasn’t an option during those years anyway. The names they held were passed down from previous generations, each one sharpened by the razor edge of forced acceptance.
Both first and last names generally fell in line with the popular names of American society. Desperate for any sort of insertion into the majority, parents weren’t going to joke around with some random name just to be creative. This went on until the latter part of the ’60s and early ’70s, when self-determination became a part of the new normal. In an effort to gain a bit of that shiny new black empowerment being bandied about, parents introduced new names to the lexicon and redefined what it meant to be an American.  These so-called “black names” were and continue to be, to put it lightly, clowned unmercifully.

There is a clip from a Comedy Central show called The Jeselnik Offensive, in which the host introduces a game show called “Black Name Spelling Bee.”   There is another clip by the duo Key and Peele, where they act as college football players with, shall we say, colorful names.  Don’t feel bad if you laughed, because I almost passed out the first time I saw this. But the larger issue is far from funny. Black names, by and large, are identified as markers for those with limited intelligence, suspect morals, criminal activity and impoverished upbringing.  This assessment can rear its ugly head in such arenas as loan applications, school admissions policies and employment opportunities. It’s nothing but a modern form of redlining.
As made famous by the myriad studies done on the topic, hiring managers, for reasons not fully explained, systematically disregard résumés with names they deem as “especially black.”  The hiring managers can usually skate away on their prejudice, with the fault falling on the applicants for having the gall to write such hideous names down on résumés. Their antiquated, stereotypical thoughts are left to shine in the sun, while a qualified applicant is left rejected.  But when the onion is peeled back, you’ll find that it has less to do with the actual name and more to do with who has it. For example, according to the Social Security Agency in 2012, the fastest rising name in the US was, wait for it… Arya. As in, the young heroine from the Game Of Thrones.   Under no circumstances will this name ever be thought of under the same racialized parameters. TV show-derived or not. If anything, it will likely be praised for its individuality.

Remember earlier this year at the Oscar Awards, when the young actress Quvenzhané Wallis was being interviewed by a reporter who, showing a tremendous lack of decorum and professionalism, decided Wallis’ name was too difficult to pronounce and decided that she would call her “Annie.” (Wallis is playing the title character in an upcoming film version of the classic play.) Wallis was not feeling the name switch and instead of grinning and bearing it, responded honestly, explaining that she didn’t want to answer to an arbitrary name just because the reporter was too lazy to do her job.  In the Oscar Nominee Luncheon before the ceremony, she even hipped the press on how to pronounce her name.
Even though a large portion of the public came to her side (the rest went to comment threads and predictably rallied against her name), the larger point was missed.  The argument is not whether or not Wallis, or anyone with a similar name, has a fake, made-up name. The discussion should revolve around the fact that we all, essentially, have fake, made-up names.  Names don’t exist on the periodic table. They don’t exist along with the wind and water as elements that can be processed. They’re not food that grows on trees. Names are just a group of sounds, constructed to assign everyone a particular designation. Names aren’t special on their own. What gives them importance is who assigns them and who receives them. If the person with the name is of high esteem and their opinions are valued, the name is treated as such. And vice versa.

Several years ago, I was talking with a former co-worker about world history. Somehow the name Tyrone came up and with it, all the indulgent stereotypes associated with that name-  sheisty, raggedy, and uncouth. Erykah Badu used that name for a reason. There’s been a Tyrone character in 80 percent of all black sitcoms. It’s “our” name­- except that it isn’t. As I explained to my friend, Tyrone is straight-up Irish.  Want proof of its old popularity? There are eight states with a city named Tyrone still on their registries. It was a popular name in white families for years. For reasons unbeknownst, it fell out of favor and became a black name, assigned to asthma patients, dimly lit project hallways and ex-cons. Other black sounding names include Tanya and Tasha, which are both Russian names, and Reggie and Marcus, which are both Latin in origin.  Here’s a list of Irish names that most people just assume are black: Shayla, Kayla, Brianna, Kiara and Kira. I can go on and on, here, but hopefully, the point is understood. This is where the ignorance lives, in these hidden places where assumptions turn into granite.
When black people attach value to a certain thing, that thing loses its luster. The thinking seems to be anything that Black America deems important ––fried chicken, hip-hop­, etc –– must be bad.  That’s why certain names deemed simply as “black” are actually either Arabic or come from any of the several dozen African countries with large numbers of American immigrants. Names like Hassan, Khadijah and Imani. These names have existed as long, if not longer, than their European contemporaries. But since their popularity in the US lies in Black Americana, we don’t have to care about them.  The name Diamond is considered a black name and the name Rose, a white name. Diamond is a stone; rose is a plant. Neither has religious identification and yet, they have totally different connotations.  Critics advise against naming your kids after alcoholic drinks like Hennessy. And yet, there are thousands of little girls named Brandy.

There has always been a sentiment, mostly in upwardly mobile black communities, that naming children after intimate objects, such as a Mercedes Benz, is a terrible example of hood materialism. Meanwhile, the Oscar Award-winning actress Mercedes Rhuel has likely never had to defend her name.   There was a report engineered by Harvard professor LaTanya Sweeney earlier this year, in which she revealed that so-called black names like LeRoy and Kareem were, when googled, more likely to trigger incarceration ads on a search screen.  Sweeney’s paper found that the prejudice that exists could have catastrophic effects on the overall upward mobility potential of someone who, without those biases, would likely reach many of their goals. 
“names, previously identified by others as being assigned at birth to more black or white babies, are found predictive of race and those assigned primarily to black babies, such as DeShawn, Darnell and Jermaine, generated ads suggestive of an arrest in 81 to 86 percent of name searches on one website and 92 to 95 percent on the other, while those assigned at birth primarily to whites, such as Geoffrey, Jill and Emma, generated more neutral copy.”

 We’ve known that certain names impact hiring potential. The critics decry the difficulty in pronouncing and spelling popular black names, and argue that the difficulty is the reason they are dismissed. Yet, we as a society learned how to spell Gwyneth Paltrow, Miley Cyrus and ABC News journalist George Stephanopoulos (not to mention CNN’s George Stroumboulopoulos) . As far as I can tell, none of their names have been mocked. Their names have not stifled their upside one bit.  I’m not naïve. I understand that there are societal agreements that become social constructs. Every culture has them and there are plenty of these constructs that I agree with. Just because I like certain names, and dislike others like Margaret or Fred, doesn’t mean that I or anyone should get to arbitrarily crap on anyone’s name.
I didn’t think President Obama could get over that name hurdle when he first ran for the White House.  There was a great deal of attention paid to his middle name during his first run, and I was surprised that he’s wasn’t disabled because of that. Maybe a stronger ticket than McCain/Palin would have beaten him. Speaking of which, I actually like the names that Sarah Palin chose for her children- Trig, Bristol, Willow and Track  However, they are certainly made-up in the same way that LaMarcus and Shamika are made-up. There’s zero difference. All that post-racism stuff we keep talking about, this is where the proof of it has to manifest. What good is it if people sign petitions and pass laws, if a name like Tyreke can get judged without merit.

As “unique” names flood the mainstream populace, there has been an uptick in the frequency of different names. According to the baby name website, Nameberrysome of the popular mainstream names for 2013 include “Eponine,” “Kirrily,” and “Adelina.”  Exactly.  What will be interesting to see is if these names are shunned. If, via a large scale pushback, these names will be considered unworthy, ignorant and “ghetto.”  If these catch on, and their parents are made into semi-celebrities for being creative, then we’ll know for sure that the double standard is truly vicious.  In a world where US Senator Sherrod Brown is white and former Eagles QB Donovan McNabb is black, open-mindedness is a real asset. Diversity can’t just be a word tossed around in corporate seminars. It has to matter in a tangible way. And that includes people with “Moozlum” names, like you know, the one I have.

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