Originally published in Gadfly on the Wall and republished here with the author’s permission.
As a public school teacher, few things give me as much anxiety as getting my student rosters for the first time.
I look over the list of names for my incoming children and cringe.
How do I pronounce that? Every year it never fails – there’s always at least four or five names I’ve never seen before – or at least never spelled quite like that.
As a white teacher in a district with a majority of black students but very few black teachers, there’s not really many people to turn to for guidance.
And if I don’t figure it out soon, I’ll be making a pretty terrible first impression. No one likes to have their name butchered, especially children, especially if an adult is doing it, especially if that adult is white.
The only solution I’ve found is to soldier on with the first day’s attendance and just try my best:
It’s uncomfortable, but I get through it and eventually learn.
However, one thing I’ve stopped doing is going to other white people for help. That’s a recipe for disaster.
It almost always turns into an exercise in subtle racism and white supremacy. No matter who the person is, no matter how kind, caring or empathetic, the reaction to unique black names is most often derision.
White people snicker and use the situation as the impetus for telling stories about other black names that they thought were even more outrageous. It’s not that we’re trying to be hateful. I don’t think we even recognize it as racist, but it is.
We use the situation as an opportunity for bonding. “Those people who are not like you and me – they name their children things like this! Not like you and me who name our children more respectably!”
Make no mistake. This is racist behavior. We are emphasizing the otherness of an entire group of people to put ourselves over and above them.
It’s bigoted, discriminatory, prejudicial, and just plain not cool.
What’s wrong with black names anyway? What about them is so unacceptable?
We act as if only European and Anglicized names are reasonable. But I don’t have to go far down my rosters to find white kids with names like Braelyn, Declyn, Jaydon, Jaxon, Gunner, or Hunter. I’ve never heard white folks yucking it up over those names.
I can’t imagine why white people even expect people of color to have the same sorts of names as we do. When you pick the label by which your child will be known, you often resort to a shared cultural history. My great-great-grandfather was David, so I’ll honor his memory by calling my firstborn son the same. Jennifer is a name that’s been in my family for generations so I’ll reconnect with that history by calling my daughter by the same name.
Few black people in America share this same culture with white people. If a black man’s great-great-grandfather’s name was David, that might not be the name he was born with – it may have been chosen for him, forced upon him – by his slave master. It should be obvious why African Americans may be uncomfortable reconnecting with that history.
Many modern black names are, in fact, an attempt to reconnect with the history that was stolen from them.
Names like Ashanti, Imani, and Kenya have African origins. Others are religious. Names like Aaliyah, Tanisha, and Aisha are traditionally Muslim. Some come from other languages – such as Monique, Chantal, and Andre, which come from French. I can’t understand why any of that is seen as worthy of ridicule.
Still other names don’t attempt to reconnect with a lost past – they try to forge ahead and create a new future. The creativity and invention of black names is seldom recognized by White America. We pretend that creating names anew shows a lack of imagination when in reality, it shows just the opposite!
Creating something new can be as simple as taking an Anglicized name and spelling it in inventive ways. Punctuation marks also can be utilized in unusual positions to add even more distinctiveness such as in the names Mo’nique and D’Andre.
At other times, they follow a cultural pattern to signify as uniquely African American using prefixes such as La/Le, Da/De, Ra/Re, or Ja/Je and suffixes such as -ique/iqua, -isha, and -aun/-awn.
And for the ultimate in creativity, try mixing and matching various influences and techniques. For instance, LaKeisha has elements from both French and African roots. Other names like LaTanisha, DeShawn, JaMarcus, DeAndre, and Shaniqua were created in the same way.
This is something all cultures do. They evolve to meet the needs of people in a given time and place. Yet when it comes to people of color, we, white folks, whoop and guffaw at it. Heck! When we can’t find black names far enough out of our mainstream, we even make them up!
Don’t believe me? Have you heard of La-a? The story goes that a black girl was given that name and a white person asked how it was pronounced. The black woman said her name was La-DASH-ah. This is often followed by a punchline of black vernacular.
Har! Har! Har!
But it’s not even true! According to Snopes, this is a made up story. It’s the American version of a Polish joke and demonstrates how far white people will go to laugh at black culture.
The great comedy duo Key and Peel tried to call attention to this in their outstanding substitute teacher sketches. In a series of short routines, an almost exclusively white classroom gets a black substitute teacher from the inner city schools. Mr. Garvey is expecting black names, so he pronounces the students’ middle class white names as if they were African American.
Almost everyone loves this sketch. It gets universal laughs, but wait until it’s over. Too many white folks try to continue the giggles by then talking about “wild” black names they’ve encountered. But that’s not at all the point Key and Peel were trying to make! They were trying to show how cultural context shapes our expectations of proper names.
Mr. Garvey is worthy of our laughter because his expectations are out-of-sync with his surroundings. When we expect all African Americans to have European or Anglicized names, we’re just as out of touch as Mr. Garvey. But like Dave Chapelle’s comedy, sometimes the person laughing the loudest is getting something the comedian didn’t intend at all.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if black names just generated snickers. However, white culture actually selects against people with black sounding names.
It’s one of the most obvious features of white supremacy. You may not like black names, personally, but do these people deserve to suffer for embracing their own culture?
If we’re really going to treat people equitably, an easy place to begin is with black names. White people, stop the laughter and giggles. I used to do it, myself, until I thought about it. Yes, I’m guilty of the same thing. But I stopped. You can, too.
It’s not the biggest thing in the world. It’s not even the most pressing thing. It’s not a matter of guilt. It’s a matter of fairness.
Because when the final role is taken of all America’s racists and bigots, do you really want your name to be on it?
Steven Singer is a husband, father, teacher, and education advocate. For more information, you can visit his website www.svteach.wikispaces.com, his blog Gadfly on the Wall, and follow him on Twitter @.