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’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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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…

    • 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.

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