White People Need to Stop Snickering at Black Names

baby-and-parents

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.

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

  1. This is all totally true, and something that people don’t realize and should. Your analysis of the names and origins is spot-on. It’s true that Black names are creative and are a connection to cultural identity, and that snickering at them shows racism, a feeling of White superiority, which is also shown in housing, loan, and job discrimination, though, as you point out, having White sounding names didn’t help Michael Brown or Freddie Gray. People’s names are an important part of their identity, and should be respected, never snickered at. Kudos for bringing up something that most people don’t think about. And students won’t mind if you mispronounce their names the first time if they see you sincerely want to get it right and respect them as people and individuals.

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  2. It is NOT racist to not know how to pronounce a black student’s name, or in my case, a middle eastern student’s name. We have cultural differences and the kids are named based on their family background. Fine. Accept it. I’ll do my best to phonetically pronounce your name and I will ask you how to pronounce it. It’s that simple. I’m white and my last name is pronounced wrong all of the time by people,of all color. I don’t take offense, and I certainly don’t think the person who said my name wrong is a racist. This article is trying to stir the pot. If you think when a black person’s name is pronounced wrong it means someone is a racist, then you need to get over yourself. You’re too sensitive. This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever read.

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      • Clearly you need to reread. She didn’t say that mispronouncing them was inherently racist, she said that viewing them with derision is. Which is what Steve tried to point out. I don’t think the author is “too sensitive”, albeit she is self-aware and sympathetic to how other people feel, which is a good thing. In regard to race, rhetoric like “stir the pot” and “too sensitive” is pretty indicative of white fragility. You probably make it a habit of denying racism exists and ignoring its manifestations. You probably think white privilege is “ridiculous”.

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      • Have you ever thought that many of these same people would also make fun of strange spelling/pronunciations of traditionally “white people’s” like Sindee or Aza (Asia)? Some times its not racism but just insensitivity. If you really want to solve the problem, talk to the “offending” person in private with your thoughts on the subject.

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    • By the way, something I started doing this year as a teacher: Instead of calling roll on the first day, I had my roster in hand but went around the room and asked each kid what name they go by, first and last, and wrote them down on my seating chart. This way I heard their pronunciation first, didn’t accidentally call a kid by a first name when they went by a middle name, etc. And I had every kid do it, regardless of how seemingly simple their name appeared. I think it’s also uncomfortable for everyone to call roll without incident and then have that pause when you get to the more unfamiliar name, so this was a nice way to avoid that as well.

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    • The point: you missed it. The author is NOT saying that it’s racist to mispronounce students’ names when taking attendance/making introductions. The author IS saying that it’s racist to laugh at those students’ names simply because they are Black names, and, by extension, that whites are superior. I mean…did you actually read the article? Or did you read the first couple paragraphs and decide you knew better and that racism doesn’t exist, you’re colorblind, etc., etc., ad nauseum? Not everyone has the good luck to be born a mediocre white man who can bask in a sea of white male privilege; others must acknowledge that, despite their personal discomfort, racism does exist and must be confronted.

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    • If the author was saying that mispronouncing names was bigotry I would agree with you, but I believe you misunderstood. I read the piece as saying it is okay to initially mispronounce a name the intention and willingness to learn to say the name correctly. What isn’t right is masking our discomfort in our “mistake” by making fun of the name(s) instead (even when it isn’t in front of the person).

      I apologize to my students before I begin and ask that they gently correct me as many times as it takes. I insist that they not settle for “close enough.” I want to model mutual respect regardless of age, race, or anything else that tries to divide us.

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    • You missed the point. Did you read? The article didn’t say it was racist to mispronounce names…..it’s racist to belittle, berate and laugh at them. Got it now? Not sure how you misread that. ….

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    • You completely missed the point that this author made. She said that she often gets her students’ names wrong, but that she soldiers though the tough first day of class and eventually learns how to pronounce them. She is not saying that this is racist; of course no one can be expected to know how to pronounce every word from every culture, even if that culture is also American. It’s racist that many white folk (like I admit that I used to do) ridicule these names, which are often marks of creativity or simply come from different, non-Anglo sources.

      It doesn’t even appear that you read the article. If you did, you did it poorly. This author is advocating for simple kindness. I think that it is you who is trying to stir the pot.

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    • The article is not about how you are racist if you pronounce a name wrong but rather how you are if you choose to laugh at the name and never learn to say it correctly.

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    • He is not saying that pronouncing the names wrong is racist… he is saying that what you do after you hear this name may be. Weather it is part of a joke or a laugh with your friends or colleges. I think you completely missed the point.

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    • Did you even read the article? It’s not that saying the name wrong is racist, it’s laughing at or making fun of the names that is racist. It’s saying that when you hear a name like Chaquayla and you shake your head and say, “silly black people with they’re silly names, why do they have to do that?” THAT’S racist.

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    • You obviously didn’t read it. At least I’m hoping you didn’t fully read it. Because if that’s the message you gleaned from this article, you really need to brush up on your reading comprehension. You are so far off.

      Not being able to pronounce a name isn’t the issue. The issue marginalizing people who have names like the ones mentioned. The issue is these people are being overlooked for education and employment opportunities just because of their names. The issue is teachers snickering at and making fun of these children.

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    • I agree! Mispronunciation happens. I’m good at pronouncing Middle Eastern names from my studies of Arabic (and I keep learning it because I enjoy it) and I really like Middle Eastern names. I’m also good with German pronunciations. But, even white names I sometimes mispronounce. It annoys me when people get offended over that. Really? Mistakes happen on the first time of meeting.

      Also, names like Jaxon, Declyn, and other ridiculously spelled names like that annoy me. To me, those names are on par with the creative ethnic names… and any parent that names their child with that type of spelling should not look down on black people who have different spellings for their child’s ethnic names.

      Personally, I never think of names and what the name means for the person. I get to know the person’s character. I base the person on the content of their character, not the contest of their name.

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      • A-hem, speaking of ignorance, DECLYN is a properly spelled Irish name, the name of a saint in fact. So if, as you said “Declyn, and other ridiculously spelled names like that annoy” you you really need to get off your high horse saying “Personally, I never think of names and what the name means for the person. I get to know the person’s character. I base the person on the content of their character, not the contest of their name.”
        Who’s ridiculous now?

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    • You’re correct, it is NOT racist to not now how to pronounce a black student’s name, or a name deriving from any other culture that one might not be all too familiar with.

      But, that is not what the author here is getting at. What is insensitive, or racist, or what have you, is this attitude that the author describes when encountering cultural differences: “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,” and it is attitudes like this that emphasize “the otherness of an entire group of people to put ourselves over and above them.”

      It’s the attitude in response to cultural differences, such as with names, that can exude bigotry and/or racism — not the fact that we stumble over names themselves.

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    • You’ve completely missed her point. Are you mocking the kids for their names? Snickering over them with your friends? If so, you are the person the writer is talking about. If not, this doesn’t concern you. Sit down.

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  3. Thank you for this! It seems basic, but it speaks volumes to students and parents/family members who have names that the teacher may need help with.I teach preschool and every year I have to ask for help. I have the parent pronounce the name and I repeat it until I get it. (For me, it is often Asian and African families.) Often, they wave their hand and are willing to accept my mispronunciation, but I tell them I want to say it properly and they look pleased (and sometimes surprised). Laughing at names is deeply insulting and biased.

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    • My first thought when reading this article was, if you don’t want to pronounce it wrong, ask the student how to pronounce it. I grew up with a very long Polish last name that no one would pronounce correctly the first, or second try. The teachers I respected most were the ones who looked at my name and immediately asked how to pronounce it. The ones who wouldn’t even try were the ones who bothered me. As for it not helping Michael Brown or Freddie Gray, I don’t think their names had anything to do with their circumstances, more so their environment and behavior.

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  4. Probably underestimates the number of white people who mock names like “Braelyn, Declyn, Jaydon, & Jaxon”, but otherwise a good article.

    I appreciated the background and history of even “unique” African American names. Important context.

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  5. I know exactly what you are talking about, and that is the reason that I always asked students to correct me if I pronounced their names wrong before I called roll the first time. I told them that if I a name was unique and I hadn’t seen, heard or said it before that I might pronounce it wrong. In fact, I’d turn pronouncing unfamiliar and rare names into a lesson on the English language and how it absorbed words form languages all over the world. If I mangled a name really bad and the student corrected me, I’d add, this might be a challenge for you to teach me so don’t give up on me. Keep correcting me until I get it right even if it takes a few weeks.

    There was a class set of dictionaries, and my students learned where to find the root of a word discovering quickly that English comes from just about every known language on the planet, that English has about 1 million words because of that. I’d point out that because I was a mono-language person and that made it difficult for me to create some sounds in other languages that didn’t exit in English. For instance, there were sounds I had trouble making and used the rolling “r” in Spanish as an example. All my Spanish speaking students knew exactly what I was talking about and some of them tried, always unsuccessfully, to teach my how to roll the “r”.

    We even talked about the evolution of English from Old English, to Middle English to Modern English about the time of Shakespeare and how all the invasions of England changed the language.

    Let’s take origin:

    1350-1400; Middle English < Latin orīgin- (stem of orīgō) beginning, source, lineage, derivative of orīrī to rise; cf. orient

    I suspect that a lot of Black names have French/Spanish/native American origins because the colonization and history of the southern slave states. Imagine the discussion from that history and how influenced the evolution of the English language in the U.S.—-the fact that there are distinct regional dialects and they can be traced to who colonized what areas of the U.S. and what ethnic groups migrates west along specific routes. I never thought to start a discussion about that before.

    But I always mentioned how difficult English could be with a million words in it compared to French, the language with the 2nd largest vocabulary at a quarter million words. Then there is Chinese with its tonal language that changes the meaning of the same word based on tone. One tone can mean F-You (or something just as insulting) while another tone for the same word means apple.

    This sort of discussion is great as a way to introduce Shakespeare in its original Englsh—explaining why it seems so difficult to read. And then there is the original Beowulf that was written in Old English. I'd pass out a one-page copy from the original Old English Beowulf version, and then ask the students to tell me what it was about. There would be a lot of mental and physical head scratching with confused looks.

    I'd emphasize that they were looking at English that was more than a 1,000 years old. Next, I'd pass out the modern translation for the same passages and ask them to compare how the language had changed. Once we dived into Shakespeare, there weren't many complaints and after every act, we'd discuss what was going on. Especially in Romeo and Juliet where Romeo's friends are talking about woman's thighs and otehr body pats. I'd warn them that there was some pretty nasty x-rated discussions taking place in that act—if they paid attention and found them. Boy, did it get quiet for that act as the kids poured over the original Shakespeare struggling to find the bawdy adolescent language that I told them hadn't changed much among teenage boys through the centuries.

    Imagine the conversations we had after that act. They were lively.
    .

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  6. I have seen the same attitude applied by SOME teachers (and I really wish you had modified this article by saying “some” or “many” white teachers, rather than just “white teachers (fill in the blank).” This generalization, too, is a form of bias.) toward foreign-born students. It is our responsibility to respect our students, their heritage and their families by learning their names. And it is OK to explain that it may take a few tries and you mean no disrespect when you make a mistake. One interesting aspect of all of this is that there are no longer names that repeat themselves often in a classroom (i.e. three Marys in one room), so there are more names to remember. Just be respectful and try until you get it right. It’s OK to explain that a name is unfamiliar to you and that you need to practice.

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    • I kept a seating chart on a clipboard and when a name was difficult to pronounce I did my best to include the closest phonetic spelling possible to help me pronounce the name correctly. The only time I failed was if a name had a sound in it that my English language tongue couldn’t make. In that case, the student usually asked me to call them by a nickname that I could pronounce and I wrote that down on the seating chart and Hi-Lited it.

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  7. Back in the days when we had professional development that was not sponsored by publishing companies promoting a product, I attended a workshop on teaching using oral history, presented by a Black anthropologist. In passing, she mentioned that bestowing a unique name on an African-American child perhaps had its origins during slavery. If you named your little girl Susan, how likely would it be that you could track her down once the slave master sold her away? If you named her Sofronea, there was a far greater likelihood that her unique name would help to identify her. Parents lovingly named their children to protect them as best they could, despite the long odds. This also may have been what underlay the habit of students who would complain bittterly about “being called out of my name”. Being called by your real name matters, especially if you have endured a history of others giving you a name of their choosing.

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    • This is the first time I have ever heard this, the reason behind the unique names, I mean. Thank you so very much for that. I’m going to do some research …

      And yes, black people do have a thing about “being called out of our names.” It’s extremely insulting to us. The only ones who can get away with it are our parents and close adult figures. Anyone else? No. Just … no.

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  8. I agree that no one should ever have their name disrespected however this article was too one-sided for me and doesn’t reveal the whole picture. But it does make white folks look, yet again, racists when mostly they’re not.

    A couple quick points missed is 1) There are plenty of “white people” who name their children different (weird) types of names and people make wild fun of it. Check out the Hollywood celebrity list to see some if you may have missed them. Stand-up comics make quite a living on these incidents as well. 2) Some “black people” may want to consider not naming their children in offensive ways. My family held many positions in the Detroit school system and has experienced what you’re talking about repeatedly. My cousin tried her best not to crack up but how does one keep a straight face when a new student shows up with the name Clitoris or Vagina. It’s true, these ladies exist in Detroit, and it’s funny. Although I feel for the kids since they had no say in their name and will live a life of snickering, etc because of parents with bad boundaries. (By the way, I am not listing the children’s races however they all were not black. I want you to understand how one-sided and hurtful the above article really is.) But for the kids with different names, we don’t snicker and joke, we accept and try to learn how to say their name. And we hope their parents have taught them to be understanding with others and help teach them how to say their name correctly. It’s more about helping each other grow instead of teaching people to be offended at every little thing.

    I am polish and no one can spell or pronounce my name but instead of being insulted I usually laugh with the folks. I realize that it isn’t their disrespect to me but a challenge to correctly pronounce a name in a culture that is do diverse. These folks are trying and I won’t fault them if they smile, usually at their own expense. I have yet to run into a racist situation or someone telling me I am a “dumb polack” because of my name. Most people are kind and respectful and laugh at their own follies, regardless of their skin tones and blood lines.

    Bottom line is, it doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is or where your ancestors came from. Parents of all races and colors name their kids weird things and we, as adults, do our best to respect the children. I believe adults try their best to be respectful to different names with different pronunciations in such a diverse culture. And for those who don’t, well don’t lump me and my peeps in with them just because my skin is white. That’s not fair. And don’t segregate white and black folks by stereo-typing white peeps into a overall disrespectful group. Non of this will be resolved until we put down the white/black swords, or any other racist sword, and just all simply be human.

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      • If Snopes says your own experience, or the experience of someone you know and trust, is an urban legend, clearly you have to go with Snopes instead of your own experience, right?

        Snopes is usually reliable. It’s not infallible. And while I’ve never met a person named Clitoris or Vagina, I’ve met some with names in much the same vein, regardless of what Snopes claims.

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      • The point is this: I don’t know you. You’re a stranger. I can’t take an outrageous claim you purport as being true of your experience without evidence. This is even more true if sites dedicated to dispelling rumors don’t back you up.

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      • No, sorry, having family who worked in law enforcement some unfortunate kids are given highly offensive names by their parents. Sad but true. It’s not that common, but it sets the poor kid up for a lifetime of ridicule. BTW, I have an unusual name–it’s ethnic, passed down in my family, and I’m named for my grandmother who was named for hers, etc. I’ve had more African American people laugh in my face and make really insensitive comments like “what were your parents taking when they came up with that one?” and “that’s why parents shouldn’t be allowed to make up names!” than anyone else. Though true that white teachers in school would usually just say at the first few role calls “I’m not going to try to pronounce this one, last name Jones.” I guess maybe African American people felt more comfortable just saying what was on their minds about my name? Maybe the white people thought it too but didn’t want to seem prejudiced? Or maybe in a culture where many names are “made up” but follow certain rules, like girl names ending in an A or the use of certain sounds, they just thought my name was also made-up but failed to follow those rules?

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  9. Thank you! Guilty of this..not so much because of the names but often because of the spellings NOT matching traditional phonetics and I would think, “WHO does this to a child’s name?” . I never even considered it a racial issue but looking at past history and traditions based in the culture it is all VERY TRUE. Who am I to question it or even shake my head internally about it? Thanks for the call out. MANY of us need to hear this!

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  10. Is this not hypocritical, “I’ve never heard white folks yucking it up over those names.”

    I’m white and I’ve yucked it up over all the horrible white people names. Like the aiden craze I call it. Just put any letter in front of it and it’s a name. And don’t forget nevaeh… dumbest name ever. When did spelling something backwards become a thing. A don’t forget spelling things wrong, err uniquely… so horrible.

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    • Sally, new white names are not ridiculed nearly as frequently as African American ones. Moreover, the emphasis is different. When new white names are mocked, it’s often because of the reasons you mention. When distinctly African American names are snickered at, it seems to be because of their cultural origin. Moreover, there have been no studies showing that having a new white name will make it harder to get a job, etc.

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    • Nevaeh isn’t just a “white person” name, I’ve met several Nevaehs of color. Also, while we might not love the name, imagine how hurtful it would be to see your own name condemned as the “dumbest name ever.” So long as the name isn’t outright offensive, please show some respect.

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  11. Sorry, but I find this an overly sensitive playing of the race card. I am a fan of the Miami Heat, but that doesn’t stop me from noticing that two of our players have, frankly, misspelled names: “Dwyane [sic] Wade” and “Justise [sic] Winslow”. To me, it is the attempt to just be different that causes the eye-rolls. It could be a girl named Barbiye, for instance, regardless of race.

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      • There was a time when spelling was not standardized; not just names but words in general. That is one of the challenges of reading Old English and Middle English; even an individual author sometimes will spell the same word more than one way in a book.

        Then we invented dictionaries and standard spelling. And it was a good thing, because it makes reading and writing easier.

        In American white culture, the spelling of names is mostly standardized. White people who take common names and spell them differently are mocked for it, even more than people who invent completely new names are. Steve Martin’s movie LA Story has a scene where he talks about his annoyance with people who do things like spell Tiffany with a PH.

        There is an element of classism in play here as well as racism. Standard spelling is a class signifier in mainstream white culture; spelling words differently is seen as something done by poorly educated and uncultured people. And as you might expect, modified spelling of common names seems to be more popular among the white poor than among the white rich, as well as being a thing that is common in black culture.

        Finally, there is the case where somebody has a name that is correctly spelled in some other language but that spelling is different from the standard English spelling of the word. I’m not sure how you can sort out those from the intentionally modified spellings.

        People who are against the intentionally modified spelling of names are expressing a preference for the convenience and benefits of standardization. I think most of them are consistent in objecting to EVERYONE who indulges in that particular orthographic sin, regardless of race or cultural background.

        Who decides? Another can of worms. In the case of names that are also words that can be found in a dictionary, we could do worse than using the primary standard spelling from there. Thus Destiny is correct, not Destinee or Destyny. But that doesn’t help with names that are just names or where the etymology goes far back enough that people don’t recognize it. I doubt that many people know that Jones originally came from “child of Jon”, or that Tiffany comes from an old word for Epiphany.

        And what of names that have had unusual spellings for many generations? Should we require all the Cowpers of the world to change their last name to Cooper? (They are pronounced identically; neither sounds like the name of a bovine.) The Cowper spelling goes back to the fifteenth century; as a word it is a long-extinct variation of the spelling of the barrel making trade, but it lives on as a name and in anatomy in the name of the Cowper gland (which was named for its discoverer).

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      • Very interesting comment, Shirley. I think you’re right that class is a part of this, too. However, I don’t think anyone has a right to determine what is the correct way to name anyone else. This is a personal choice and reflects numerous social and cultural concerns. In general, I abhor standardization. Give me freedom and creativity.

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  12. Beauford, Egbert, Aloysius, come read this! See if our traditional “white” names get pronounced correctly r generate snickers!

    (P.S. I have always wondered why my last name — it rhymes with five — is so difficult to pronounce and spell correctly. Note that there is also no “s” on the end, a distinction that so many people of color seem to miss. Am I the victim or racism?)

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    • P.J., mispronouncing a name is not racist. Mocking that name because of the culture it signifies is. White names do not get the same kind of ridicule as African American ones. Have you heard the same kind of mockery for names like Willard Mitt Romney and Rance Preibus? I’m sorry if you feel left out.

      Like

      • People make fun of Rance Preibus all the time…he sounds like a character in a Harry Potter novel.

        I have a friend who named one of her children after a character in a book. The character happened to be a horse and it is not a name in the English language merely spelled differently nor is it even a word in the English language. We’re both white. In my opinion, which I have a right to, she has done her son a disservice by doing this, especially when it is pronounced nothing like it’s spelled and rhymes with a common food product (which they inevitably have to say to get people to say his name correctly).

        That same opinion holds trust for people who make up brand new names, or use names like Miracle, Precious, or even Nevaeh. I feel like if you choose to name your child a traditional name from another culture, you should also choose the additional spelling. It’s my opinion and I certainly have a right to that.

        Our children will all be adults one day and they will carry their names with them. Whether you like it or not, our names tell people a little about our backgrounds without them having met us and people formulate opinions My children both have traditional, but common Irish names that are easy to pronounce. I didn’t choose super common or trendy American names, because trendy names bug me (maybe because my parents slapped me with one 35 years ago). If you’re white and your name is something like Crystal or Tiffany, it’s not unusual that someone may make an assumption about your economical background and education level. It may not be right, but the point is, our names tell a story about us, so when we name our children, it’s our responsibility to think of their future when doing so.

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  13. Steven,

    This is definitely a problem I’ve encountered as well in my 7 years in Philly! I agree that we as adults need to stop mocking student names – both privately and in the classroom.

    In order to alleviate the stresses of mispronunciation to both teacher and student, one of my icebreaker activities for the first day is to make the students both write and tell me out loud something about their names. It can be a funny story, or something about where the name came from, or really anything they can think of that includes a verbal pronunciation of the way they say their names. That way, I can listen and write down a phonetical spelling for my own reference. And the written paper is my way of taking attendance stress-free – and giving their first classwork grade.

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  14. a name is neither black…or white…or yellow, or which ever race/ethnicity from which it was derived…it is someone’s name or identity that a parent or relative saw fit to bless them with to carry through their life…somewhere along the way it might get twisted into a nickname,an abbreviation of some sort OR changed wholesale to meet the social setting- Diep Van Ho changed his name to “Bill” because he fit in better that way… I love how this topic brings out the best in people…call me Dave- but my mama says my name is David ! & dont you forget it!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. As an amateur genealogist, one of my first discoveries was that names common in earlier generations seem absurd today. Cinderella was found on both the American and Canadian frontier (I had at least 7 cousins of that name). My favorite, however, was a 19th century Scotswoman whose 1st & 2d names were Debonnaire Fleetwood (long before the Cadillac existed). The name survived, most recently given to a cousin in 1966.

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  16. My name is MELANIE. Never had one teacher pronounce it correctly. Melody, Melonie, Melinda, Mel Annie , Mel Ann, and my favorite Melionie. BTW, I am of a fair (Irish, English, German and Native American) complexion. My very dear friend (who is African American) was very young when she had her first child and in trying to honor all of her loved ones ended up with a name no one (even her family) could pronounce. We all call her Cookie and love her to the moon and back!

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  17. Typical of today’s society stick all whites in a box and call them racist. So old and boring. FACT is the new trend of naming children made up or unpronounceable names is just stupid and I don’t care what color the persons skin is. I have a white friend that named her child Kiowa (like Iowa with a k) I didn’t like it either!. It’s NOT about skin color but these people giving their kids make believe names don’t think past the end of the first year, when the kids enter school, or the work force. They didn’t grow up having to teach people how to pronounce their name or have someone making fun of it. Kids in school are far meaner then any adult snickering over a name. How about not labeling everything a white person does as racist! In my opinion this article is quite racist!

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    • G.Luck, criticizing white people engaged in racist activity is not racist. Check your white fragility. Mocking black names is something a lot of white people do. You should see the comments I didn’t let through onto my page! Second, I’m sorry you disapprove of the way some people are naming their children. You’re entitled to that opinion. However, it is just wrong to ridicule someone for a name you don’t like. And if you’re doing that because that name signifies as African American, it’s racist. I don’t know how to make that any clearer.

      Liked by 1 person

    • How about start teaching kids it’s not ok to bully. It’s not ok to mock someone’s name. It’s not ok to mock their ethnicity. Or for any other reason. Being cruel is not ok and there’s never a good excuse for it.

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  18. Many other black names are made up, and not attempts to reconnect with African history. Given the recent new migration of Africans to America, from places like Nigeria, African Americans have a readily available lexicon of actual African names for their children.

    Or, like first-generation Hispanic immigrants, they can “assimilate” more. As a newspaper editor in “triracial” towns, I’ve seen plenty of names like “Daisy Fuentes.”

    And, it’s not just limited to the US. I note, as a well known name and an example, “Alberto Fujimori” in Peru; “Alberto,” not “Takemitsu.”

    Besides, one could extend this issue to American Indians forced to Anglicize their names. Some are going back to English-language versions of legitimate Indian culture names.

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  19. I’ve had to learn this lesson, too. I don’t know when I decided I don’t like snickering with people over names, but I know I used to do it, and I know that when I read this piece, I recognized the author’s reluctance to talk about names with other white teachers, because I stopped, too.
    I never had a big embarrassing moment where I got caught and up braided for disrespecting a student behind her back, but sadly, I probably have deserved that at times.

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  20. But what about Key and Peele’s even more iconic multi-version sketch of the football players introducing themselves with increasingly outlandish names? Is this one of those areas where Black people are free to make jokes about names, but White people mustn’t laugh?

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    • Good point, Lois. I’ve never particularly liked that sketch perhaps because I wasn’t sure what they were getting at. Maybe they were showing this as the other extreme. Maybe they were lampooning the NFL’s strange way of highlighting players. Maybe they were satirizing how much the NFL relies on people of color. I don’t know.

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  21. Great article. It challenges one to view non-traditional names through the lens of culture and history. However, culturally and historically speaking, names, in general, have meanings. Example: Michael, means “One who is like God”. What I suggest is that the creative, non-traditional names be associated with positive meanings that could be considered precursors to children’s positive self-concept.

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  22. This article is part of the problem with today. Not understanding how to pronounce and name isn’t insensitive. Not liking a name choice is not racist. It doesn’t matter what the race of a name is, if it’s unusual, some people are not going to like it. We need to stop being so sensitive. If you don’t want your child to feel uncomfortable if someone pronounces their name wrong, do not name them Christina, and spell it Krysteenah. I am white. My last name is Verhoeven. If someone can’t pronounce it (MOST people can’t!), or think it’s funny, are they being racist? Disagreeing with a name choice is not racist. Hating someone for their color, that is racist.

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    • Valerie, mispronouncing a name is not racist. Having an opinion is not racist. Mocking a name because of the culture it signifies is. Not doing so requires empathy. I know for some people that’s just too much work, but if you don’t want to unintentionally engage in racism, you need to give a crap about others.

      Like

  23. I understand and appreciate many of the names African Americans give their children in order to distance themselves from the Anglo society. I get it. But, sadly, sometimes the African American community does not get it and goes so far as to name their daughter “Aquanetta.”

    I know Aquanetta because she works at my local post-office and her name-plate reads: Aquanetta. I would photograph my friend wearing her name plate simply to prove that such misguided names exist and to prove I’m not making this shit up, but I know better. I know that she, a nice woman with a serious job and probably a wonderful life, has likely lived her life with assholes saying, “What the fuck were your parents thinking???” and I’m not about to add to that.

    But then there’s that part of me that thinks, “What the fuck were your parents thinking?” You’re named after a can of fucking hair spray.

    And then I think, “Fuck it…you MUST have overcome a childhood rife with bullying because your parents were idiots and not because of anything you did.” So live and let live.

    (But don’t deny me the right to laugh at the name “Aquanetta.” Seriously….it’s fucking hilarious.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • What “African-American community” are you speaking about? Do you think this was a decision voted on by a council? It’s just the decision of the woman’s parents. It’s this kind of thinking that’s ruining this country. People like you, fake Americans, need to leave. Doesn’t matter where, just go. Real Americans don’t want your kind here.

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    • I’ve never heard of Aquanetta hair spray (I’m a young adult). It just sounds like a variation on the word for water in many languages, ‘aqua’, with a common European ending. It’s unusual, but it sounds like a princess sort of name. Not everyone is aware of all the same associations that you are aware of.

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  24. I’m sorry, but there are lots of people, including many black celebrities who poke fun at the names that unusual. I don’t believe it has everything to do with racism as you suggest. I’m a nurse who sees many unusual names that aren’t necessarily associated with one race. Often I see names that are unusual or unique from some of the white population as well. Does this make me racist if I laugh at their uniqueness? I think people like you who feel the need to stereotype a common behavior are the ones who are shortsighted. I’m so tired of reading articles lately that suggest some behavior I have is racist in nature. I’m a pediatric nurse, and never once have I ever walked into a room and thought oh this kid is (fill in the blank with whichever race or religion you’d like to pick for today) I’m going to take care of them differently than I would someone who wasn’t. I’m tired of people who feel they are somehow more enlightened than the rest of us feel the need to try to guilt us for common behavior. Stop spreading your hate by trying to divide people into stereotypes. Sometimes names are funny and deserve a snicker or two. It doesn’t mean the people laughing are racist or bigoted. Too many people like you decide to spread hate like this because somehow it makes them feel like they are superior to others when all you are is spreading more negativity.

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    • Let me get this straight: someone who suggest you shouldn’t laugh at others because of their names is the real racist? That doesn’t make any sense. Yes, I’m suggesting you change your behavior. I gave reasons why you might want to do that. If you disagree with me, then by all means ignore my advice. However, do not assume that mocking someone’s name if that name signifies someone’s culture or race is not racist or prejudicial. It is. Studies show that people are treated differently based on their names. Maybe you avoid this in your nursing practice, but frankly no one is able to see themselves entirely clearly. Maybe if you denied yourself the pleasure of laughing at your patients you might even be a better nurse. Try it!

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  25. I’m really disappointed by how many people here think it’s ok to mock other people’s names, particularly children’s names. I’m disappointed by how many people seem to think that rather than making our culture more inclusive and welcoming, the burden should be put on the individual to have a name that fits in. I’ve dealt my whole life with having an “ethnic” name, one that has been passed down in my family many generations. I have to say that most white teachers wouldn’t even try to pronounce it, but didn’t openly mock me. African Americans though felt fine about laughing in my face and asking what my parents “were on” when they named me…. It’s not just white people, everyone needs to learn to treat each other with respect. Of course I appreciate that what I witnessed first hand isn’t the whole picture. People with “ethnic” sounding names not getting calls back on jobs show that while some might not openly mock different sounding names, they are still racist about them.

    Seriously, before you say something about someone’s name, THINK about how hurtful you are being. A number of comments here criticized the name “Neveah.” Well the child didn’t pick the name, so don’t hurt her feelings calling it stupid. Second there may be a story behind it–what if the child’s grandmother died right before she was born, so the parents named her “Neveah” to bring some solace to their grief, to remind them their loved one was now with God? Is that something to mock?

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  26. My name (especially my middle name) was unusual to other kids when I was growing up…and I took some teasing on it. Adults, too had difficulty with substituting a different, similar, more common name…so much so that I changed the spelling of the nickname associated.

    Likely because of that I was very sensitive to student names when I started teaching. I always made a point to double check my pronunciation with the student if I had a question. I spent my entire career teaching in an area which wasn’t very diverse (mostly WASP and Amish), but still there were a few adults who made fun of the unusually spelled names in private. Because of our clientele it was mostly of the unusual spelling of a common name (such as Courtney, Kortney, Cortni, etc.), but since we always did have a small minority population we would get students of South Asian and African-American backgrounds. Perhaps because there were so few of them, or perhaps because people were fearful of being labeled racist, teasing or joking about those students’ names seemed to happen less often. As Lloyd mentioned, above, many teachers used the differences in names to teach kids about language, geography, and cultural differences.

    My son is the father of two adopted African-American girls whose birth mothers named them. Neither of them have distinctly African-American names, but they are unusual. I know how I would feel if they were teased or made the butt of jokes because of their names. For that reason I’m grateful that you wrote this post. Making fun of someone’s name, for any reason, is just plain rude and disrespectful.

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  27. It’s more profound than just being racist. I may think some names I haven’t heard before sound strange but that is overshadowed by the admiration I have for those parents that are daring to be different. If it were up to the people that are snickering – we all would have the same name ! They would not have the courage to try something new for fear of public ridicule. Every “normal” name we hear today was at some point new and subject to the same kind of snickering when it was first introduced. The only reason it’s “normal” now is because someone had the courage to buck tradition way back when. So it’s really about how society values creativity – which is ironic because all great human innovations were because of someone bucking the trend and being different. A society that truly understood that would not make fun of “different” names – they would embrace the process that produced them and encourage others to follow suit.

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  28. I know this doesn’t address the actual point of your post, but in case you haven’t found a work-around for pronouncing names:

    Having taught in a school with a large percentage of ESOL students (or whatever the current acronym is), I suggest taking roll on the first day by asking each student his or her name, and then checking it off your list. I would usually be very honest about why, and emphasize that it is important to me to pronounce each person’s name correctly whenever I say it.

    Also, good post.

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  29. Omg! I faced this issue so many times. Except I am of Nigerian origin, my name’s is Aanuoluwa. It means ” Mercy of God” in Yoruba, one of the many languages in Nigeria. Just seeing a non-Anglo Saxon names makes a lot of teacher uneasy. I’ve been called Aanu all my life, which is part of my name. I’ve had teachers call me Anna, Annie, Ana-Lou. I’ve had to put my foot down so I can be called Aanu. In high school, I once had an instructor say to me “I’m glad I didn’t give my child such a name.” Frankly it’s rude to make fun of anyone’s name. Thanks for writing this!

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  30. In the future, why not try having students introduce themselves? It takes away the chance to mispronounce their names and also gives them a little power which can be awesome.

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  31. This article is rediculous. I don’t care if you’re white, asian, hispanic, etc, If you decide to make up some kind of name for your child I would shake my head at that. I have a mexican aunt named Deisy that decided to name my cousin Ysied (Deisy backwards) and I think that’s just as ridiculous as another person naming their child Shanaynay or Le-ah (Ledasha).

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    • Esther, you’re entitled to your opinion. However, if you’re mocking someone because their name signifies a culture or race, you’re being racist or prejudice. You don’t get to decide whether someone else’s name is acceptable.

      Like

  32. Please. Even black people make fun of some of the names. Check youtube and you will find these videos. I make fun of what some white people name their children also. This PC stuff is getting out of control. In every culture there is something to laugh about. Is it racist when there is a movie that says that I can’t jump or that white people (especially men) have no rhythm?

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    • Carl, why is it so important to you to make fun of black people’s names? I can’t for the life of me understand why giving that up is such a burden. If someone mocks another person’s name, they’re not a good person. If someone does it because that person is black, they’re also a racist. When you ridicule a modern white name, you might hurt that person’s feelings. When you do it to a black person you’re supporting a system that allows employers not to call back people with black sounding names. You’re propping up a racist caste system. That’s not PC. It’s about not being a jerk.

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      • Try and stop vilifying people as “bad people” for chuckling at a one-off humorous sounding name, you self-righteous arbiter of humor and inter-racial etiquette. Notice I didn’t resort to calling you a generally “bad person” for simultaneously defending the poor name choices of parents everywhere while indicting others as “bad people” for finding something irregular a bit humorous.

        Save the “bad person” accusations for when someone verbally or physically abuses some kid for their parent’s name choice. Victimizing people like you do takes away from actual victims.

        Employers aren’t going to call people back for whatever reason they want, keep trying to control the minds of others, pal…let me know how it works for you. Ill be here continuing to enjoy the freedom to laugh at whatever I find humorous, while simultaneously taking jabs at me gracefully.

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      • Steven there are reasons stereotypes are around. You can cry “racist” all you want but sometimes it’s just stereotypes. Stereotypes and profiling is the reason humans were able to survive the food chain until they got out, it is human nature to find patterns . If you went to McDonalds and you got food poisoned 3 out of 4 times, would you be hesitant about going there the 5th time around? Sure the McDonalds aren’t all the same and the food might be different but to say that you wouldn’t be hesitant about going to mcdonalds the 5x is a lie to yourself. Most people aren’t racist but have negative stereotypes.

        It’s funny because most people have a negative view of politicians and yet society today is trying to convince everyone to act like politicians. Don’t be offensive and be accepting of everything, sooner or later your going to have a society that’s going to implode.

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      • PChater, stereotypes are often used as justifications for prejudice and racism. Saying that they’re often justified is tantamount to saying prejudice and racism is often justified. Please tell me what minorities did to justify their treatment at the hands of the white majority.

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      • Did you read that piece in the Stanford Alumni Magazine about how racist thoughts are mostly subconscious and they are not specific just to white people?

        https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=80755

        Jennifer Eberhardt says it isn’t what we think subconsciously that counts. Its what we do after we have a subconscious reaction to someone else.

        If we learn how to recognize the triggers, then we can control the reactions that are racist in nature as long as we are willing to learn and make the effort.

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  33. I stumbled upon this article when it was reproduced on another site (everyday feminism) and found it interesting but also a little myopic. That said, it could be that my context (coming from Australia) gives me a different point of view.

    30 years ago ‘racial’ names such as Ng, Amool, Nishchol, Hertia, Basheir might have raised an eyebrow (or snicker) but frankly now – except in pretty extreme and openly racist circles – by an large pass unnoticed, apart from problems of pronunciation which is a simple familiarity rather than prejudice thing.

    What does garner sniggering, if not outright laughter, are names invented/modified etc, adapted from other words, or most grievously kids being given brand names. Here in Australia the issue isnt racism, its classism. If you start inserting punctuation into your name, swapping c’s and k’s, throwing in silent h’s, doubling up on letters when the original was a single or using the names of expensive perfumes and/or cars you will automatically be considered a “bogan” – a pejorative difficult to translate to the US but imagine a sort of ‘white trash/redneck/hillbilly’ but in a distinctly urban setting. Having money is no defence, that simply makes you a Cub (cashed up bogan). Teachers will automatically start thinking you’re career choices will be the trades, sport or behind a bar. No lawyer will be an Anfernee, no politician will be elected named Skylah etc. I note there is an amazingly strong correlation between these names and disadvantaged suburbs.

    Which brings me back to your article. Having lived in the US for a few years previously, I understand that the issue of race is pervasive and unavoidable, however, I wonder that in many cases you are also witnessing elements of classism.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. Loved your article (which I saw on Everyday Feminism). I came here to offer one solution that I use as an ER doctor who meets new people every day. I’m also in a university town, so there are a ton of names which I can’t pronounce. I ask first how they say it rather than mangle and apologize. Instead of going down an attendance list the first day, why not go around the room, ask every kid to say their full name, what they like to be called, and what it means or how it is special to them or why they like it?

    If you ever have a transgender kid, ask pronoun preference too. 😉

    Like

  35. While I would never laugh at anyones name, I find the bastardation and appropriation of names very irksome. As an Irish person with a distinctly Irish name, my first impression of seeing an American (with no Irish background) called “Synead” left me shaking my head at the complete igorance of the cultural origins and lack of respect for the linguistic rules of its variation – “Synead” I assume is supposed to sound like Sinéad, (which in its original gaelic form follows rules of pronounciation) but as a distinctly American english variation, forgoes all of this. If Americans want to appropriate Irish names (as is common – Ryan, Kevin, Caitlyn) they could at least respect its anglosied version. Which in this specific case, could be anglised as “Shinead”, “Shinade” or other forms but pleasenever “Synead” because it is not pronounced the same in the original Gaelic or English forms. Africans do not appropriate Irish names in this manner, so I don’t know why African Americans feel they can do the same.

    Another example that kills me is the distinctly american first name “Mackenzie”, often applied to a girl, even though it is a Scottish patronymic surname meaning “Son of Kennath”

    Liked by 1 person

  36. I don’t know what to think of this article. You do come up with some very valid points and, you should never mock someone’s name. That being said even people in the black community make fun of these names. The names that are not heard of before. I mean I’m going to have to admit some people do go too far. Some people name there child Vodka. I’m assuming that name means something else but every time people think of Vodka. I find it interesting that you are a white men who holds these viewpoints while most of my family who are black do make fun of the extreme black names. I’m not talking about names like Andre, or Lakisha.

    I don’t like it when peoples name get made fun of either. In my senior year of high school there was this Arab boy said why do black people name their children that. Then he made fun of my name which my father said wasn’t a black name but I don’t know any white person with that name. I don’t know any black person with my name either. But once in a while like every five years someone says ” Hey, my niece has that name.” And every person who says this once in a while is black.

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  37. Invented names are as silly whether they’re made up by black or white people. Why make life more difficult? There are dictionaries with thousands of established names that still aren’t that common, that mean something and which you can use if you want to individualize. If black people are so eager to maintain their black uniqueness, why continuing embracing the religion of their former masters? Go back to some of the African religions instead. Or absurdly why adapt English? Yes, some names can be hard to pronounce, that doesn’t make them black or white. Why even mentioning black names? If you want to be a contributing member of society why making a point of you being different? It’s just as racist to emphasize that you’re black as it is – according to the author – to mind invented names.

    You live in the US that has made enormous strides in fighting racism these last 50 years. Why not try to blend in instead of trying to stick out? Muslim names, ok, African names, ok, Nordic names, ok, you show you’ve read a little and the supply is enormous. Your name can become a speaking point and show a desire to belong. We all need each other and even if your name might suggest otherwise, you won’t make this trip through life on your own.

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    • Nick, Thank you so much for giving black people permission to have certain names but not others. I’m sure they are overjoyed. Finally there is someone to tell them which names are silly and which aren’t. Much appreciated.

      Like

  38. I also feel that we need to discuss the fact that this is labeled “Black” names rather than names some Black people have. It reinforces certain ideas of Blackness and of the race being a monolith.

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  39. Utah is full of unique and quirky names, too. It’s not just black folks in America, the frontier West is full of colorful names you don’t hear elsewhere in the country.

    Like

  40. I’ve lived in both Los Angeles and NYC and what you say is true, what you don’t mention is how black people and white people make fun of Asian names.

    Perhaps having a study on how black people make fun of Asian names would make for an interesting study?

    Like

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