Should Parents Give Their Children Distinctively “Black” Names?
One day in October of 2013, Cristy Austin and her 19-year-old daughter Keisha went before a judge in Johnson County, Missouri, paid a $175 fee, then returned home as Cristy and Kylie Austin.
A teenager feels compelled to change her “black” name
Keisha Austin had asked her mother to give her, as an early Christmas gift, a new name. And after much anguished discussion, Cristy Austin reluctantly gave her child what she pleaded for.
But why? This was not just a teenage whim on Keisha’s part. Her decision to become Kylie Austin came after much thought, and with some opposition both from her mother and from friends. Why was this so important to her?
Kylie Austin is the daughter of a black father and a mother, Cristy, who is white. Cristy knew her child, though biracial, would be considered African American. Wanting her to grow up feeling connected to and proud of her heritage, Cristy decided to give her a distinctly “black” name. She chose Keisha, because to her that name represented a "strong, feminine, beautiful black woman."
But after 19 years of being known as Keisha, the younger Austin decided that the burden of bearing a black-sounding name was more than she could bear.
Growing up in a mostly white environment, Keisha had been subjected all her life to taunts, jokes, and bullying based on her name. Classmates at school would ask if there was a “La” or “Sha” attached to it. Even a teacher made jokes about it. To Keisha there was often more than a hint of hidden racism and prejudice in their comments.
“It’s like they assumed that I must be a certain kind of girl,” she says. “Like, my name is Keisha so they think they know something about me, and it always felt negative.”
A person’s name can make a real difference in their life
Keisha Austin’s experience with name-based prejudice is by no means unique. Since the Black Power days of the early 1970s, some African American parents have delighted in choosing conspicuously non-white-sounding names for their offspring. It was, just as Cristy Austin thought, a statement of racial pride and independence.
But a factor those well meaning parents may not have considered is that in a society still far from being color blind, having a name that identifies a person sight-unseen as black can often prove to be a distinct disadvantage.
Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) conducted a study to determine the effect on employment of having a name that could be related to a particular race. The research was conducted between July 2001 and January 2002.
In their study the researchers sent out resumes in response to employment ads in Chicago and Boston newspapers. The resumes were divided into two equivalent groups, each representing a range of qualifications for the positions. Half of them were randomly assigned names typically associated with blacks, while the other half bore “white sounding names, such as Emily Walsh or Greg Baker.”
Bertrand and Mullainathan reported on their research in a paper entitled Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? The NBER summarized their findings this way:
A job applicant with a name that sounds like it might belong to an African-American - say, Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones - can find it harder to get a job…
The results indicate large racial differences in callback rates...
Job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback…
The 50 percent gap in callback rates is statistically very significant… It indicates that a white name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience.
Even Google treats people with black-sounding names differently
The disparities in how people are treated based on whether their name seems black or white extends even to Google.
Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney, who is black, began noticing something odd in her Google searches. It seemed she was seeing an inordinate number of ads for criminal background checks and the like. So, she conducted an academic research study to determine if her perception was real. It was.
As I noted in an article entitled Is Google Racist? Ads Placed with Some Google Searches Show a Racial Bias:
Dr. Sweeney discovered that Google searches for names typically associated with blacks, such as "Ebony," "DeShawn," or, ironically, her own name, "Latanya," were 25 per cent more likely to bring up advertisements for services having to do with criminality than were similar searches using more "white" sounding names, such as "Kristen" or "Jill."
Ads for criminal background checks or arrest records appeared even when the particular black-sounding name searched had no criminal records associated with it. On the other hand, white-sounding names often yielded no such ads even though the advertiser's own database contained criminal records attached to that name.
This is not so much a Google issue as an advertiser issue. Google ads end up where they do because advertisers choose the keywords that will trigger their ad placements. So, these crime-related ads show up on searches for names associated with African Americans because, apparently, some advertisers think blacks are the group most concerned with criminality.
Most popular names given to African American babies
Aaliyah/Aliyah, Alexandra, Alexis, Alyssa, Angel, Aniyah, Brianna, Chloe, Destiny, Diamond, Gabrielle, Hailey, Hannah, Imani, Isis, Jada, Jasmine, Jayla, Jordan, Kayla, Kennedy, Kiara, Laila, Madison, Makayla, Nevaeh, Sydney, Taylor, Tiana, Trinity
Anthony, Brandon, Caleb, Cameron, Christian, Christopher, Daniel, David, Elijah, Ethan, Gabriel, Isaiah, James, Jayden, Jaylen, Jeremiah, Jordan, Joseph, Joshua, Josiah, Justin, Kevin, Malik, Matthew, Michael, Nathan, Tyler, William, Xavier, Zion
Should parents avoid giving their children “black” names?
When Keisha Austin was considering her name change, both her mother and some friends initially urged her not to do it. One friend told Keisha that she should stand up to prejudice, and demonstrate to people that a name doesn’t define the person.
But should parents put that kind of pressure on their children, inflicting on them the onus of having to bear an added burden just because of the name they were given? Is it really fair for parents to express their own racial pride in that way when it’s the children who will have to pay the cost? Is it responsible parenting to put an African American child, as Bertrand and Mullainathan indicate, up to eight years behind whites in terms of the qualifications and experience required to get an equivalent job?
A counter example: Barack Obama
On the other hand, there is the example of another biracial child who did stand up to prejudice associated with his name and made it to the very top. Barack Obama was known early in his life as Barry. That was also the name his Kenyan father had chosen as his American nickname.
But in 1980, when he was a student at Occidental College, Barack Obama decided to make a change. When he went home at Christmas of that year, he told his family that from then on he wanted to be known by his given name, Barack. In essence, Obama made the opposite choice from the one Keisha Austin made. And, as we know, that worked pretty well for him.
Throughout his two campaigns for president, there were many who focused derisively on his non-American sounding name. But that didn’t prevent Barack Hussein Obama from twice being elected to the highest office in the land.
Could it have been that extra drive and pride from his name that helped propel a young Barack Obama to aspire to the heights he achieved? To me it seems probable that his name was more of a positive than a negative, not so much because of others’ perceptions of that name, but in its effect on the person himself.
So, which way should parents go?
One option: let the child decide
Many parents see the name they choose to give their child as part of the ongoing struggle for racial equality. While they recognize that it could place an extra burden on their offspring, they believe it will actually make the child stronger, as it apparently did with Barack Obama.
But what about those parents who would like to give their child a distinctive name he or she can proudly live up to, but are reluctant to put their progeny at a disadvantage relative to others?
One possible solution to the dilemma is to let the child decide. Obviously, parents must give their baby a name long before it is able to choose for itself. But I think we already have a well accepted way of allowing the child to choose the name by which he or she will be known.
Here’s my suggestion: give the child a racially neutral first name. Then, if desired, give them a middle name reflecting the particular aspirations and pride the parents have for their offspring. Now, at an appropriate time in his or her life, the child can decide which name to emphasize without being accused of being ashamed of their name.
Most people in our society are known by their given first name, and seldom even mention their middle name. On the other hand, there are many who “go by” their middle name, and may or may not ever allude to their first name.
The example of Mitt Romney
An example is Barack Obama’s opponent in the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney. I’m sure that to this day, most people who voted for or against him have no idea that his name is actually Willard Mitt Romney. It was Romney himself who chose by which name he would be known.
Similarly, Michael Tyshawn Anderson or Brenda Lakisha Smith would have the choice of which name they wanted to be publicly known by.
Name prejudice is wrong, but real
None of this in any way serves to justify prejudice based on a person’s name. That’s a despicable practice that no one can defend. But it’s also a fact of life. For that reason parents can’t just consult their own hopes and dreams (or whims) in choosing a name. They should at least think through the impact a particular name might have on the life experiences of their child, and make their decision in light of that assessment.
Is it OK for a parent to give a child a name popularly associated with a particular race? Absolutely! And is it OK to do it in such a way that the child can ultimately decide by which name to be known? To me, that makes a lot of sense.
© 2013 Ronald E. Franklin