Column: What to do about a 'ghetto' name

Editor's note: Jenée Desmond-Harris, a staff writer for the online magazine The Root, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture and also writes an advice column called "Race Manners."

Question: "I'm a young black woman with what you would call a 'ghetto' name. I'd have no problem with my name if it weren't for the fact that for my entire life, white people have made fun of me. I've had people tell me, 'You seem like such a good person, though — I can't believe you have such a ghetto name.' People have said my parents made a huge mistake. I've had hiring managers tell me that they would hire me only on the condition that I 'shorten' my name for the customers. My name is Laquita, so it really isn't even complicated. Anyway, I'm tired of it all. The problem with this is telling my family. I feel like it's a curse. Do you think it's the right choice, or am I 'giving up'?"

Answer: Honestly, my first reaction when I read your question was, "Go for it. If your mother loves the name so much, tell her she can have it."

But treating this dilemma as if it has a quick fix strips your question of all the complicated background that compelled you ask it. I guess so-called ghetto names are a subset of so-called black names — the ones African-Americans have either created or disproportionately embraced. Everyone's heard about how even the plainest among them, such as "Jamal" and "Leroy," are 50 percent less likely to elicit a job interview callback.

But your issue isn't just that your name reveals your race to people reading your resume. Nor is it spelled in a way that defies phonics (Dwyane). It's not a glaringly aspirational reference (Lexus). It's not a food (Lemonjello) or alcohol (Alize). It doesn't even include an extra uppercase letter or punctuation!

Nope, the only thing "wrong" with "Laquita," which Our Baby Namer says means "fifth" (citing an ever-so-vague "African" origin), is in the minds of those who are so put off by it. My view is that the disdain isn't really for the three innocent little syllables but rather for the type of black person who they imagine would choose to put them together.

And even if your name really does correlate, as one study showed that some do, with having parents without a high school education, is that something to be ashamed of? Even in a country where the racial wealth gap was "built" and the ghetto is "public policy"? Even where "started from the bottom" is a badge of honor for so many Americans who are self-congratulatory about their own climb to success?

If so, that doesn't make sense, and it's really sad.

I should mention that to be judgmental about monikers is just as much a class thing as it is a race thing. (Just Google "ghetto black names" and see who's laughing.) In fact, Kaye Whitehead, a professor of communications and African and African-American studies at Loyola University Maryland, traces your name's stigmatization back to the 1990s, when black male comedians started with the punch lines about "Shenenes" and "Shaniquas," linking them to "someone who has a weave, someone who has fake nails, someone who spends her money on things she shouldn't.

"Laquita is in the same ballpark," she says.

Whitehead says that while "all names are inventions," we tend to dismiss black-identified names as if they're bestowed upon children without any thought or care. Her suggestion: See if you can nurture an outlook that's more "This is who I am" than "This is something that happened to me." In other words, own it. And for those people who are critical? Here's a handy script: "This is my name. This is how it's pronounced. I don't insult your name, and I don't expect you to insult mine."

I wish you could get that there's nothing "cursed" about "Laquita." Instead, the curse is that people are judging you for something that you didn't choose and — at its very worst — suggests that you may be less privileged than they are.

So if you can't own your name, go ahead and make the change. I'm dying to know what you want to be called instead. But make sure your mom knows that what you're giving up on is dealing with all those dumb biases, not on the name she chose for you — whether because it means "fifth" or she just loved the way it sounded — expecting, reasonably, that the world would let you live with it in peace.

© 2013 The Root

Column: What to do about a 'ghetto' name 05/16/13 [Last modified: Thursday, May 16, 2013 4:55pm]

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