White People Need to Stop Snickering at Black Names


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:

Me: Shah-NEE-Qwa?

Child: Shah-NAY-Qwa.

Me: JAY-Marcus?

Child: JAH-Marcus.

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 dumb.

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 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 Peele 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 crazy 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.

Countless studies have shown how much more difficult it is for someone with a black sounding name to get a job, a loan or an apartment than it is for someone with a white sounding name. 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?

Moreover, having a European or Anglicized name is no guarantee of fair treatment. It certainly didn’t help Michael Brown or Freddie Gray.

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?

NOTE: This article also was published on Everyday Feminism and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

155 thoughts on “White People Need to Stop Snickering at Black Names

  1. This article was mentioned in a discussion about Raven Simone comments about ghetto names on the View this week and I must say this is a very good read and so very true. As a Black woman it so very tiring that we have to constantly think about how a white person is going to perceive me essentially everyday because how I chose to do things may not be the “correct way” to do them. Imagine having to consider someone else’s opinion in almost everything you do…and multiply that by a million because the majority of white America feels most of what comes naturally in terms of how we dress, speak, wear our hair etc. Is seen as less than and inferior and “done wrong” That right there is the weight of bigotry, racism and hate and we carry it everyday – and still many of us don’t even know it because they are used to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have never even thought of this… I teach preschool and Sunday school classes in an area of predominantly black students and I’ve done the exact same thing. I’m glad this article came up on my Facebook.


  3. This article is great, makes a very good point. But for the record, I know an actual La-a. Maybe it started as a joke, but the name is now being used.


  4. This is beautiful! Thank you so much for writing this. Just yesterday a girl named Chanequa at work made a quirk about how she didn’t think her parents loved her for naming her that and I had to speak up and remind her how beautiful her name truly was. I told her that her name means “happiness” and she is sincerely one of the sweetest and happiest people I have ever met. She has the warmest personality and her parents chose right when they named her.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] How does coming from unmarried parents mean you deserve to be killed by police at a greater rate than white people? How does parental marital status affect the justice system handing out more severe and longer sentences for blacks than for whites who commit the same crimes? How does the Facebook status of your pops and your moms somehow translate into difficulty getting a job due to your black sounding name? […]


  6. As a teacher, I have a strategy I need to share with you. I never read out names. It’s a recipe for disaster. I write student names on a worksheet. I place each worksheet on the desk before students arrive to show their assigned seats. (Yes, even with multiple classes. I taught middle school and would place them in a pile alphabetically. As one class wrapped up I’d race around and place the worksheets on desks and then dash to the door to greet the next class. It was a little stressful but well worth it). This worksheet served as a silent activity for them as we started class. I would go around the room and have each student say their first and last name for me correctly. I then played a game where I memorized every name and had to say each first and last correctly by the end of class. It made such a statement about respect for names. I got it from a book by Luanne Johnson and did it for years. Much better than butchering names.


    • Melanie,

      I used a seating chart with the class layout on it. I wrote the name of each student on a chart for each class and carried it with me all the time. I taught for thirty years and that chart helped me memorize students names and if my memory failed me, as it started to do as I become older, I always had that seating chart. I never called role.

      I also started each class with an audio book – I’d been collecting audio books that matched the stories in the textbook and the novels that were on our reading lists. The second the tardy bell rang, I started the audio book and let it run for several minutes, the same amount of time in each class.

      While I took role using those seating charts, my students listened to the audio book and kept notes that focused on what the characters were doing. By the time I finished the roll and filled on the Scan-tron sheet that was picked up each period by the office. it was time to turn off the audio book. We then discussed what was happening in that story before launching the day’s lesson.


  7. It’s funny because, unlike EVERY OTHER CULTURE ON EARTH, these “names” have no meaning in any language. Then again, when people that don’t know anything (underage single mothers in the ‘hood in the 90’s started this crap) try to DO things, like name their kids, what do you expect?


    • Offthepink, you are sadly mistaken. Many black names are derived from other languages. For example, 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 come from French.

      However, even if black people chose their names completely at random, why would that give you a right to disparage them? Don’t people have a right to be called what they want? Perhaps I should ask some of my white students – Braelyn, Declyn, Jaydon, Jaxon, Gunner or Hunter.

      You are incredibly ignorant about black people. You display a stunning amount of prejudice as well. I’d suggest reading a few of the books I mentioned in this article: https://gadflyonthewallblog.com/2020/06/24/white-people-we-need-to-be-responsible-for-our-own-racism/


      • I had a white student and Crystal Chandler was her name. She said her parents were drunk when they named her and thought it was cute if they called her Crystal Chandelier.


  8. “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.”

    Then you’re divorced from reality. A quick google search will give you ample reading of people rolling on the floor laughing at the ridiculous names white people (particularly millennials) give their children. Start with Reddit and work from there.


      • Is this based just on your own personal experience? It must be.

        Here in the UK and Ireland it’s a running joke what millennials choose to curse their children with. I also hear the same thing when I’m in the States.

        But why make this a racially polarised issue? Giving children ridiculous names is a burden they will have to shoulder the rest of their lives. The constant need to have to spell “Mheaghann” (Megan), “Hailei” (Hayley) or whatever isn’t just wearying, but probably also employment limiting.

        And on a personal note: My family is Irish. I’ve lost count of the times people have had a go at us for our traditional names such as Siobhan, Séan or Aoife. But this seems to be perfectly acceptable as who cares whether anyone insults the Irish?

        But if someone from outside our culture takes one of our names and adds random bits of crap to the front of it (or wacky bits of punctuation) – D’Sean, LaShawn etc. and we bristle, we’re called racist as this is an engrained part of their cultural heritage. Poppycock. How can it be? This only started a few decades ago by people with zero connection to Irish culture and heritage.

        But is seems cultural appropriation only works one way. The English spent over 800 years raping Irish culture, our people and our land and now we have to put up with it from the Yanks. Ridiculous.


      • I was a public school teacher for thirty years and one year, one of my students had this name: Crystal Chandler.

        Maybe some parents are drunk or high or both when their children are born. My father was an alcoholic and he was drunk the day I was born, the same day World War II ended. And my drunk father was talked into adding a second middle name to the three words my mother wanted for me. My first name came from my mother’s younger brother Lloyd because I was born on his birthday.

        That second middle name my drunk father was talked into adding to the three my mother selected was Victory.


  9. I posted a rather lengthy reply here yesterday concerning the cultural appropriation of Irish names (and their abuse) by people outside the Irish community, but I see it either hasn’t been released or was deleted.

    We Irish – and particularly those of us from Irish-speaking families – have had to endure centuries of derision from the English in particular, but also from other communities, when it comes to our traditional names such as Siobhán, Aoife, Séan, etc.

    So when someone outside or language and culture hijacks one of our names and then adds random letters and silly punctuation (D’Sean, LaShawn, etc.) we find it offensive. But then cultural appropriation only seems to flow in one direction.

    Name your child whatever you like, but don’t steal from another culture and claim it’s an intrinsic part of your “culture”. It isn’t. Nor could it be. You share no history with Ireland or our people.

    But then I expect this will be deleted as well.



    • Ahh, most African Americans that are citizens in the United States arrived here slaves. The first slaves kidnapped and trafficked from Africa to all of the Americas, not just the US, arrived in 1619, when the privateer The White Lion brought 20 enslaved African ashore in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia.

      But trafficking kidnaped Africans started earlier than that for other European colonies in the Americas.

      The best estimates suggest that between 1451 and 1870 when the transatlantic slave trade ended, over 9 million people were transported from Africa to be enslaved in the New World

      What am I getting at?

      Well, the end of slavery in the US didn’t happen until 1865, 246 years after the first kidnapped and trafficked Africans were sold in Jamestown, Virginia. When freedom arrived in 1865, many of those slaves had been born here and had no last names so when they were set free many of them selected the name of their former masters or someone like Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln. So, for those free Africans who had been slaves, maybe many of the slave owners were Irish.

      My ancestors can be traced back to Ireland and England. When my ancestors first arrived in the UK they were Vikings, and their last name was Loftus. but that changed after the 10th century for most of the Loftus’s to Lofthouse.


  10. “maybe many of the slave owners were Irish.”

    Your knowledge of Irish history is appalling.

    How exactly were any native Irish supposed to have afforded:

    1) the trip across the Atlantic to America?

    Look up the term “coffin ship” and you’ll have your answer

    2) having survived the voyage on one of these coffin ships (sailing from 1848), unable to speak English (the vast majority of the Irish population didn’t speak English until into the 20th century), how did they instantly become massive land owners requiring a slave labour workforce?

    3) being broke, unable to speak the language and without land or a fixed abode, how did these hypothetical “Irish slave owners” afford to buy slaves to work the crops they didn’t plant on the land they didn’t have?

    Leathcheann dúr.


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