Black bodies, black names in a white world

I was born in the early 1970s at a time when many Black Americans were experimenting with connecting to their diasporic roots and when unable to find true connections, they created their own. The result is a generation that was given dubious-sounding African names that were really just creative concoctions that reflected the angst of the time and the need to claim a heritage that had been denied. I know this because my legal moniker is one of these concoctions. My legal name is very much reflective of my working-class Black roots and for many years it brought me much pain and agony.

In the mid 1990’s, during a particularly long and grueling job search that was going nowhere, I decided on a whim to change my name on my resumes to the more race-neutral Shay, and to simply use my middle initial of L instead of its full form in all its “Blackness.” This was well before the now well-known Harvard study on names and let me say, the difference in using a shortened and less racially connected form of a family nickname was like night and day. Suddenly I was getting more calls than I could handle. On the phone, since my voice held not a hint of stereotypical Blackness, potential employers had no idea that I was Black until I showed up for the interview. Start the laugh track now.

A race-neutral name will get you in the door, but few people excel at hiding their obvious shock of a Black person walking in the door when they were expecting a white person. The sad reality is that a name is just a name and people who are hell-bent on denying another’s humanity based on race care not if you are Laquita Shante Jones or Sally Anne Ross.

This week, this piece ran in the New York Times.  A Black mother agonizes over what to name her unborn child, because the name that her partner wants for their unborn child when searched on Google comes up with images that include mug shots of Black men. This mother only wants to best for her child and she does not want him burdened with the baggage that comes with a Black name.  But after 40 years on this dusty rock in the land of the free and the home of the brave which was built on dubious roots that included enslaving people and denying them their humanity, I am sad to say that you have to face facts: We, as the descents of those people, still carry those burdens as a collective society and there is no white name that can take that away.

Living in Maine, I have met more than a few young Black men raised here who are have very white names, very white mannerisms and overall are safe and respectable young men of color and all have had moments where the cloak of respectability that is all the rage in the Black middle class and above circles did not protect them from the harsh reality of bigotry.

A writer who I adore who just so happens to be Black Ivy League graduate and attorney wrote a response to the NY Times piece ; it was Carolyn’s piece which inspired me to write today. Respectability politics is a dangerous game for people of color to play because no matter what we do the goal keeps getting moved. We are arguing over suitable names for Black folks but whites are quite comfortable with unusual names. Tagg Romney? Hell, in Maine I have met more than a few white folks with Black sounding names including an Ebony White who worked at a sneaker shop. Yet we are over here trying to get the most race-neutral name possible.

Names are deeply personal, I spent weeks poring over names when I was pregnant with my son and I didn’t name my daughter until she was three days old. In the end my children have names that fit who they are as people. The older I get, the baggage of changing my name even informally has become a weight, as I realize that my given name is very much a part of who I am. My given name symbolizes the working class Black kid from Chicago and while that may not be who I am at this moment, it is my history.

Over the years I have made peace with my very Black first and middle name, though I rarely use them, but I was reminded of how far I have come in getting over my own quest to be “respectable” when I was asked a few days ago to submit copies of my college and graduate school diplomas for a position that I am up for. My official documents, of course, still bear my legal name (by the way a very Black name is very handy when using a credit card while Black; people are less prone to think that I stole the card). In the past, being asked for official documents was unnerving…oh, no! They will learn that I am Black. Duh! I am Black. In less than an hour I emailed the required documents, and thought nothing more of it. Hell, I am a Black girl.  

Parents of color carry burdens that our white counterparts will never know nor will they ever carry. Yet we cannot live our lives or plan the lives of our future kids with the hopes of being deemed safe and acceptable in the eyes of whites. If we do, we are only living life at half capacity, if we start denying our own humanity to even ourselves.  As the young folks say, “haters gonna hate.” If you want to give your kid race-neutral name, do it because you want to and not because of the fears this society instills in us.


Shamika LaShawn aka Shay aka Black Girl in Maine

18 thoughts on “Black bodies, black names in a white world”

  1. I remember all too often my dad, a lawyer lament about names that black parents were given their children that were too black. I will admit that your article and Carolyn’s brought up mixed feelings about which way to go on naming your child. And totally agree that having a race neutral name gives you a leg up and I can testify to that since I have a very boring name, have a flat midwestern accent which has more than gotten me interviews but unless I am blind, I have never gotten the shock when I went into to interview. But agree in the end, if you like a name go with it.

    • I am a Hispanic female from Maine who has travelled and happily worked in diverse areas. My opinion is Maine is one of the most bigoted states in America. Yes the small population of native people of color are accepted in Maine. I once asked a professor about this and he said it was due to the lack of stereotypical “black inflection and mannerisms”. It is OK to look black in Maine, but to “act black” apparently is not acceptable. Maine has a long way to go and as of this writing it is a hostile place for those who act different. I am not sure what acting black even means but I assume it means loud boisterous behaviour filled with grammatical errors. All you have to do is visit any rural Maine town to find many whites who you cannot understand, who drive pick-ups and engage in loud offensive behaviour! Maine is not a friendly place for PPL of color IMHO! I do not “act Hispanic”, nor do I have a Hispanic accent so I fit in quite nicely. One young “Down Easter” said quite eloquently “if city hoodlums come to town they will get a massive beating”. This was stated openly in an interview and reflects the attitude pervasive in my state.

  2. You really hit home with this one. I saddled my son, born in 1974, with just such name. I loved the sound of it the way it flowed and gave him DuBois, (for W.E. B. DuBois), and his father’s name, also. He could use the other two of his three names. However, we have always called him by the racially identifying moniker and I know he has it on his resume. I have often worried that I handicapped him. I consciously chose a more racially neutral name for my daughter born in 1980.
    I too love your blog and have been reading for a long time. You are a fine writer. Keep it up.

  3. I’m so happy you shared your name!

    My daughter’s friend, Quintavious, goes by Terrell. He interchanges and my kid does the same for him. This is a brown boy living in the south. He can’t escape that fact by being “Edward.” Did it give me a pause? Certainly because you don’t hear “Quintavious” every day and I wanted to know the story just because I like stories. No one asks me about “Elizabeth” and there’s a heirloom story there. I think “Elizabeth Henry” is about as white as you can get by the way. I have the name of kings and queens; which I never realized (that’s privilege for you) until my south Asian professor commented on it that way within 10 seconds of meeting me. His name was Pradyumna.

  4. I’ve always used my given name for job applications. I also knew I didn’t “sound black” over the phone. Back then I thought it was funny to see the expression on potential employers faces when I showed up for the interview. Naming my children wasn’t about whether the name was neutral or not, like you, I think their names fit who they are and I love them!

  5. I know that this is different… As a Jessica, I’ve always went by Jessi, but I make sure that my resume and anything else professional says Jessi because I find that I get a better response from the gender neutral than the more obviously female. There is a lot to a name, though. I often wonder if I would have turned out differently had my family always called me Jessica. Names are very much a part of our identities and self-image.

  6. Well, I am “a girl named MELVYN…” And yes, my parents named me that. And no, there is no relative by that name that I can claim to be named for. I have survived for 70+ years. Maybe it helped that I grew up in a small rural community where no one gave my name a second thought. My middle name is LOIS and most folk in that community, as well as my teachers there, called me that. “Melvyn” came into use when I entered high school “in town.”

  7. I have a name that I’ve struggled to come to terms with for years. It is often misspelled and/or mispronounced and I think I’ve just grown tired of correcting people. I’ve even thought about changing it. I’ve had plenty of people try to box me in based on my name and that has definitely colored my view of those folks. I find it telling if a person can’t (or won’t) learn to say or spell the name of a colleague or acquaintance. Funny story, when I met T (sistalocs) for the first time, she asked what my *real* name was! Haha!

  8. Your note in the NYT comments sent me here. Great piece! I’m white, but I’ve been through the same thing in job searches. One potential employer thought I was black because I shared the last name of an African-American NFL player from the 70s, so he brought me in for the interview. It was in a large building downtown; after I checked in at reception, they sent upstairs — alone. Sure enough, the hiring manager, who didn’t give me a second glance — even with my huge “Visitor” badge on — walked past me, looking for “somebody else!” No, I didn’t get the job that time, but I later went to work for that company. That manager was still there. He confirmed to the guy who did hire me that yes, they had brought me in years earlier because they thought I was black. I found out, too, that the woman who got the earlier job was African-American. And I was impressed that the company stuck to its diversity goal with that hire (it turned out to be one of the “whitest” places I’ve ever worked). Like you say, names are deeply personal, as are experiences, and I love being with a variety of people who can bring the widest range of experiences “to the table,” so to speak! 🙂

    • I think in recent years there have been a few Black Shay’s but it is Celtic in origin with several different spellings. I think at this point it is a pretty race neural name, I know 2 other Shay’s and both are white women.

  9. Yo, Nikisia Drayton’s piece had steam blasting out my ears, so I was relieved to come across both your critical piece and the one you link to.

    I am dismayed, however, that the criticism focuses on the futility of slave names and doesn’t address the injustice of the slave name bias. I mean, without even getting into HOW Kunta became Toby, how is it that so-called educated black folk don’t even question the ongoing pressure for black folk to conform to the arbitrary standards of white people? ESPECIALLY given the history?


    See, black folk require better analysis of the black experience. The next, vital phase of race justice — which must address the ongoing trauma from 400 years — requires it. Unfortunately, we’re not yet equipped; there is an asymmetry between the tools of race justice — still oriented toward overt manifestations of race terror — and the current demands. Leadership here is almost completely lacking…

    The fact is, we lack that certain amount of self-validation/definition/determination that a being requires to survive, thrive and be productive in this life. Without it, we will continue to disproportionately suffer and we will never be whole — much less have swagger. This is true, no matter how much our slave names/soul-less articulation/degrees/titles/bling/melanin allergies continue to delude us…

  10. I love talking about names! My husband and I discuss this often…he is white, I am of mixed race (black and white). We’ve both read Freakonomics where it mentions the pros and cons of “white” names vs. “black” names.

    As a teacher, he believes that it is better to give children “neutral” or “white” names to avoid stereotyping. I feel that his point is a valid one, but then again, stereotyping will surely happen no matter what.

    I attended school with kids of all races/colors in the South. A lot of Black girls had names like Shamika, Latoya, Dominique, etc. There were some Black girls with more neutral or “white” names like Ashley, Nicole, Brittany, etc. The Hispanic girls tended to have names like Solimar, Yanerys, Marianela, etc. The biracial/mixed girls like myself often had names like Amy, Serena, etc…names that could go either way but were pretty “safe”.

    My name is Melinda…I’ve met both Black and White women with my name, but it is a fairly uncommon name (Melissa is more common). I find that people are sometimes surprised at my name for some reason. Having a neutral name, being very light-skinned and sounding like a Waspy white woman hasn’t stopped me from the ugliness of being stereotyped. The stereotypes aren’t always negative but I can still tell that folks are thinking something about me. My new dentist, a white guy, told me that my name was pretty…so I guess that’s good. 🙂

    Personally, I like unique names but I also like some traditional names too (just nothing too boring). I considered Raine for my daughter’s first or perhaps middle name, but my husband thought it sounded too “ethnic”. I definitely didn’t want to name her something too plain and generic. Certainly not a name that every other little girl has. I love the name Sophia Marie, though, which is fairly common now.

    I agree that it is sad that we live in a world where people are judged for all sorts of reasons, many of which shouldn’t matter.

  11. I’m a white mom with mulitiracial children and I gave them what’s considered black names. Sometimes I worry they will be discriminated because of it. When they were 16 they applied for many jobs and I suspected some people were not calling back because of the names on the applications.

    My sister has what’s considered a black name. When she moved down south as a child one of her teachers told her they thought she would be black.

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