October 21, 2015
“I’m not about to hire you if your name is Watermelondrea,” said former child star Raven-Symoné on daytime TV’s The View earlier this month. “It’s just not going to happen. I’m not going to hire you.” The women of The View were discussing a video of the “60 most ghetto names” that was making the social media rounds as such things do (me, I probably was watching these baby goats cavorting in pajamas and missed the thing entirely, which I’d rather link to than the stupid “ghetto name” video).
Although Raven-Symoné later apologized for her comment, saying that it was “in poor taste,” she is by no means alone in her attitude towards names (her own highly unique and not totally traditional name aside). Mocking stereotypically African-American names isn’t just a perennially popular form of racism (though it is that), it’s also evidence of how much names can matter. We all know that names convey enormous meaning, like a billboard on which everyone can read a person’s gender, race, religion, age, national heritage, linguistic background, social class, and more. In England, a person’s background is pretty much immediately revealed the minute they speak (this is pretty much the entire plot of My Fair Lady); in our slightly less caste-bound society, names play a similar role. Tell me your daughter’s name is Brooklyn, and I will know you have never ridden a subway in your life. Introduce me to your son Winty and I can already see the Volvo parked around back. Some new parents find the task of naming their baby so daunting they hire a professional baby name consultant, or sell naming rights to the prospective grandparents.
But it goes deeper than that. Names tell a story about privilege and belonging. The jokes about African-American naming traditions only scratch the surface. How does it feel to grow up in a country where no truck stop carries a souvenir license plate with your name on it? Where your name has never appeared on a Christmas stocking in the holiday catalogues that pile at your doorway?
A recent study—cited by Whoopi Goldberg at the start of the same segment on The View—looked at the way racist and classist perceptions of names can affect the people who bear them. In the experiment run by UCLA anthropology professor Daniel Fessler, director of the UCLA Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture, a group of mostly White participants read narratives about a man getting into a minor conflict. Fessler and his co-authors found that when the man in the narrative was given a name like Connor or Wyatt, he was perceived differently than when he was labeled Jamal or DeShawn—participants saw the hypothetical man with a Black name as larger and more dangerous than the hypothetical man with a White name. Studies of racially biased responses to names go back decades (this one focuses on how résumés with stereotypically African-American names get 50 percent fewer callbacks than those without).
It’s not just that some of these names are, to middle American ears, unusual; it’s that they read as Black, as Jamelle Bouie pointed out in a 2013 article in The Daily Beast. White parents give their children non-traditional names, too—just look at Gwyneth Paltrow’s Apple, or Jason Lee’s Pilot Inspektor. But the economic implications are nowhere near as significant when we’re talking about rich (or even non-rich) White families. Apple is going to be just fine.
And it’s true that the definition of acceptable names—or at least names that can go along with success—has widened considerably recently. After all, our current president is named Barack, after a string of Anglo Saxon names including six Jameses, four Johns, and three Georges. But let’s not forget how crazy the reactions have been to President Obama’s name, especially his middle name, Hussein, which has been trucked out as a none-too-subtle dog whistle by Islamophobes and others who still want to believe he’s not an American.
In a 2003 paper Bouie cites, economist Roland Fryer points out that so-called “Black names” are a fairly recent phenomenon. “In the 1960s, the differences in name choices between Blacks and Whites were relatively small,” Fryer and his co-author write, arguing that the rise in culturally Black naming traditions in the Black Power era and beyond was tied specifically to issues of identity and pride. Black parents, just like White parents, choose names both to tie their children to family and tradition, and to signal the hopes and dreams they have for that child. The differences in the way the names are perceived is all about the culture we live in, one that still values European-based traditions over those from anywhere else.
So, what makes a name “ghetto”? Is it one that Raven-Symoné deems unacceptable? One that gives the recruiter pause when flipping through résumés? Knowing that your child will be judged by her name, is it incumbent upon parents, especially parents of children of color, to choose one that will open doors—or at least stop them from being slammed in her face?
On the other hand, isn’t that just giving in to the racists of the world? Maybe it’s time to stand with Barack—and Condoleezza and Beyoncé—and proclaim pride in a name that isn’t on every magnet and Christmas stocking. Yet.