A Reddit thread has ignited a new debate over unconventional black names. But white people do it too, writes Jamelle Bouie—and the double standard says something about racial inequality.
Reddit isn’t just a clearinghouse for interviews, animal pictures, and crazy stories. It’s also a place where people ask questions and have discussions. Yesterday, one user wondered about “black” names, posing a question to the “Black American parents of Reddit,” as he put it. “Before racism is called out, I have plenty of black friends,” he noted, raising the question of why he didn’t ask these alleged friends. “[I’m] just curious why you name your kids names like D’brickishaw, Barkevious D’quell and so on?”
Setting aside the many problems with this question—for one, “Black American parents” aren’t a monolith–there’s an actual answer here. In a 2003 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, economist Roland Fryer found two things. First, that names like Reginald and Kiara are far more likely among black children than names like Jake and Molly, and second, that this is a recent development. In the 1960s, Anglo-American names were common among African American children. It wasn’t until the 1970s and the rise of the Black Power movement that this shifted in the other direction. ”The underlying philosophy of the Black Power movement,“ writes Fryer, ”was to encourage Blacks to accentuate and affirm black culture and fight the claims of black inferiority.” The adoption of “black” names is consistent with other cultural changes—like “natural hair”—prompted by the movement. African Americans wanted to distinguish themselves from whites, and naming was an easy means to the end.
Of course, there are plenty of African Americans who give their kids Anglo names. The idea that they don’t—that all black parents use the same naming convention—is ridiculous. And popular culture notwithstanding, these distinctive names aren’t especially common. The most popular African American baby names—Aaliyah, Gabrielle, Kiara, Cameron, Jordan, and Nathan—are perfectly ordinary.
If there is a question worth asking about race and naming, it’s not “why do black people use these names?” it’s “why do we only focus on black people in these conversations?” Indeed, there’s a whole universe of (hacky) jokes premised on the assumed absurdity of so-called “ghetto” names. Derision for these names—and often, the people who have them—is culturally acceptable.
But black children aren’t the only ones with unusual names. It’s not hard to find white kids with names like Braelyn and Declyn. And while it’s tempting to chalk this up to poverty—in the Reddit thread, there was wide agreement that this was a phenomenon of poor blacks and poor whites—the wealthy are no strangers to unique names. The popular Netflix show Orange is the New Black, written by a Jenji Kohan (a white woman), was based on the experiences of a Piper Kerman (also a white woman). And in last year’s presidential election, nearly 61 million people voted for a Willard Mitt Romney, at the same time that the current head of the Republican National Committee was (and is) a Reince Priebus.
On Twitter, riffing off of the Reddit thread, I mused on this double standard with a comment and a joke. “Seriously, I will take your ‘questions’ about ‘weird’ black names seriously when you make fun of Reince Priebus and Rand Paul,” followed by “White people giving their kids names like Saxby Chambliss and Tagg Romney is a clear sign of cultural pathology.” If names like “DeShawn” and “Shanice” are fair targets for ridicule, then the same should be true for “Saxby” and “Tagg.”
Most of my Twitter followers got what I was going for. But after it was retweeted by a widely followed conservative, I was deluged with angry complaints from a host of people—mostly white men—who didn’t get the punch line. “So, names like Jamelle, Mo’nique, [and] Trayvon are normal?” asked one self-proclaimed conservative. Likewise, another asked if “Jamelle, LaShonda, Trayvon, etc. are signs of advanced, successful, economically stable and crime free culture?”, which was followed by someone wondering if “names like LaShaniqua, Jamal, Porsche, Mercedes” would be our “future leaders.” Each illustrating my point that unusual black names are treated as evidence of cultural inferiority in a way that isn’t true of unusual white names.
If we focus on “weird” African American names, it’s because blacks remain at the bottom of America’s racial caste system.
But these responses are more than just the angry comments of Twitter racists. They underscore the extent to which our ideas of normality are tied closely to socioeconomic status. If we focus on “weird” African American names in jokes and conversation, it’s because blacks remain at the bottom of America’s racial caste system. “Hunter” is just as unusual as “Malik,” but it’s understood as “normal” because of its association with white men. It’s arbitrary, yes, but it reflects who holds power. Indeed, if the situation were reversed, odds are good there would be plenty of jokes about “dysfunctional” white people who name their children “Geoff.”
It should be said that this has material consequences in the real world. Research has consistently found that job applicants with “black-sounding” names are more likely to be rejected, regardless of qualifications. If races are our castes, then this makes sense, since—in a caste system—your status is mostly a function of your position. “Latoya” could be well-qualified for the law firm she applies to, but there’s a fair chance her “black” name marks her as undesirable.
It’s the modern version of an old dynamic, best captured by Malcolm X’s joke. “You know what they call a black person who earns a Ph.D.? A nigger.”