According to the Local School Directory, my high school is currently 92% black. I graduated in 2005, but the statistic accurately reflects the student body during my time there. I had come a long way from the racist child I was (see my post Natural Hair: My Perspective), but I still judged one aspect of black culture: unique names. Because of the large black population at my school, my family had a joke that at graduation ceremonies there must be proud parents shouting “Go Keisha!” We all found this hilarious. My parents still make this joke, but now it makes me incredibly uncomfortable. I’m accustomed to my white family making fun of unique black names (my black cousin Samara gave all of her four children unique names, and my mother will never stop being annoyed by this), but explaining why they’re racist would take a long conversation, and wouldn’t change their minds. But the most disgusting example I’ve heard when it comes to disparaging black names didn’t come from a white person, it came from a famous member of the black community: Bill Cosby.
In what is know as The Pound Cake Speech, Cosby said the following-
“What part of Africa did this come from? We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans. They don’t know a damned thing about Africa— with names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed, and all that crap, and all of them are in jail.”
1) Referring to the name “Mohammed” as “crap,” is… I don’t even know what to call that. Is Cosby somehow unaware of the prophet Muhammad? Does he think the altered spelling severs the name’s tie to history? Is he angry that blacks in America have a long history with Islam? (See Islam in America for a historical review.)
3) When black folk are judged for their unique names, it is because society is racist. White celebrities are mocked for the unique names of their children, but no one thinks of these names as “trashy” or “ghetto.” Gwyneth Paltro named her daughter Apple. The names Shiloh, Maddox, and Pax went up in popularity after they were given to the children of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. I know that Cosby addressed audiences made of primarily black people, but I’d love to hear his take on “Shaniqua” versus “Apple.”
4) The names of people should never be referred to as “all that crap.” Some names are reinventions of European or typically American names, or of places, (Jaleesa from Lisa, Da’ron from Darren, Africa, etc.). Some names are a reinvention of family names; I worked with a woman who named her son Semaj, which is James, the father’s name, backwards. A famous example is Quvenzhané Wallis: her father’s name starts with “qu,” her mother’s name starts with “ve,” and “zhané” is Swahili for “fairy.” I don’t mean to suggest that unique black names need to be justified with a backstory; no matter the origin of the name, it should not be ridiculed.
Names like Kale and Hunter are odd, but they are associated with white people and therefore aren’t likely to affect people with those names in a negative way, aside from maybe some kidding from peers. Compare this to unique black names, which are disparaged in society. Black names are not only the butt of jokes, they are literally discriminated against. When the American Economic Review sent out resumes to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago, the resumes with white-sounding names received 50% more callbacks for interviews. (The AER article, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination,” can only be read in completion by AER members, but a summation of the experiment can be read on the Poverty Action Lab website.)
Proof that unique black names are discriminated against does not mean black people should assimilate by giving their children names of European decent; it means that the system is broken. When I mocked the name Keisha, I was being an Uncle Tom; unlike Bill Cosby, I eventually realized I was a jackass.