Oh Na-Na…What’s My Name?

If you didn’t know (and now you do): I’m pregnant! Even though I’m only 17 weeks and looking like 30 weeks, I’m doing well and feeling okay. I’m as tired as I’ve ever been, but writing fellowship applications while attending classes plus running after two kids will do that to you. My pregnancy is the reason things have been kinda slow around here.

So even though I’m not yet halfway through this pregnancy, and I don’t know the baby’s sex yet (but I will find out December 2!) I have been seriously investigating baby names. As you know, my kids both have names that begin with “A” and, as you may not know, both names are Arabic in origin. Most likely, we will continue with that pattern, but it wasn’t easy getting there in the first place.

When we decided on our son’s name, who is the oldest, my husband had reservations about using an Arabic name. Only five short years after 9/11, he was concerned about possible discrimination our child would face simply due to his name. And I’m sure his fears were well founded; many audit studies show the discriminatory effect of the perceived racial background of job applicants based solely on their names.

And just recently, someone told me how they “hated” my first name, even though it’s a name this person was also associated with. When I inquired as to why, they replied, “Because it’s so ethnic.” Their feeling was that stereotypes and negative connotations follow a name like LaToya from jump street. With a name as undeniably “black” as LaToya, people with this name have to work extra-hard to overcome initial prejudice before they’ve even been given a chance.

Her concerns aren’t unfounded; in fact, “LaToya” is a name commonly used in job discrimination audit studies. People with my first name get 50% less calls for interviews than those with “white” names, like “Emily.” When I was young, I also kind of hated my name – it sounded ghetto, hood. I was a bit embarrassed to have such a stereotypical black name.

Of course, my feelings have completely done a 180. First, I like my name. I like writing it with a loopy L and a elegant T. It’s a happy name. When non-Americans hear it, they always comment on how pretty it sounds. They don’t have the same racial baggage that we have here – LaToya is just another name.

Second, I think people should name their kids whatever they like, without fear of ridicule. It really bothers me when folks make fun of the “made-up” names that many working-class and poor black parents name their kids. Once upon a time, “Emily” was a made up name too. Almost all names can find their origin in something that wasn’t the name of a person; Emily (according to some sources) is from “the Latin Aemilia, a derivative of Aemilius, an old Roman family name believed to be derived from aemulus (trying to equal or excel, emulating, rival).” Imagine the first time someone tried to name their daughter Emily. Other folks were probably like, “What? You just named your kid ‘rival’?” I personally find it refreshing that our people are so creative!

Lastly, I’ve come to the conclusion that we should not bow down to racism and prejudice by changing what we do. I can’t teach my children to not judge a book by its cover if I also advocate for folks to change what they would do naturally in order to give off the “right” impression. Furthermore, how many beautiful names would be sacrificed because we don’t want people to know our children are black? Should we all be named Emily or Greg in order to confuse the race gods? Or should we focus on more important things – like making sure all the Sheneneh’s and Bonquishas know how to read?

It is definitely possible that my name has, in some way, held me back. Obviously not too much, since I am a graduate student at one of the world’s most elite universities, with a named fellowship. But even if it had – I wouldn’t care. Who I am is so much more than my name, and I don’t care if people know I’m black before even seeing me. That is their issue, not mine. In fact, being black is something I’m proud of, and if my name introduces that before I can get a chance to, all the better.

(And this is just my jam!)

8 thoughts on “Oh Na-Na…What’s My Name?

  1. I completely agree with you! I put so much thought into all of my children’s names. I LOVE my name although it is often not pronounced properly. I politely correct them and move on. My name is great and so are the names of my kids. =)


  2. I understand completely. My eldest was born in 2000 and has an Arabic name. I wondered, after 9/11, how that would affect him. I think there is a lot more name diversity on the playground, so It matters far less than I thought it would. On the other hand, I have an obviously “ethnic” name that I struggle with. People have definitely tried to put me in a box based on my name. I was teased regularly about it as a child and I now go by my nickname b/c I’m over having to explain or spell it. I do think it says a lot about a person when they listen and then say someone else’s name correctly.


  3. I agree. Be as creative and “ethnic” as you like. I know from experience that savvy and fair-minded decision-makers will look past name to credentials, and those are the affiliations worth having. If someone gets stuck on a name, he or she is unlikely to be someone that I want to work or study along side.


  4. Congratulations!

    I’m white, and grew up around mostly traditional anglo names. Then I was an exchange student in Brazil, and noticed that people (of all colors) were much more comfortable making up names there than the people I’d known at home. I loved it.

    When I adopted my Black and Latino son, he had a Latino name that had been turned into a unique nickname by his Black foster mom. I like the nickname, and that’s what he still goes by. But I wanted to name him after a Black and Latino hero, so he’d have a connection that way to his heritage. I wanted a simple name, and all the wonderful people who were both Black and Latino had names my family back in Michigan would have struggled to pronounce. So, figuring the world would see him as Black, I focused in on finding a Black hero.

    I finally learned about Bayard Rustin, an amazing man who organized the big march on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his I Have a Dream speech. He was raised with both Quaker and AME influences, was a non-violence activist (starting in the ’30’s!), joined the Communist Party, and was openly gay at a time when that was quite dangerous. So my son’s official first name is Rustin. Simple-sounding, like Justin and Dustin, but quite unique. He only hears it at the doctor’s office and airport, but maybe some day he’ll grow into it.


  5. Congratulations!

    This post hit close to home because although hubby and I dont have kids yet, a few of the names we have in mind are most definitely not anglo. I havent let anyone really know of the names we like, but the few times I have, the scrunched up faces and snickering come out. We really dont care but we tend to keep the names to ourselves. It really irks me that people feel that we have appease racists and bigots by keeping our baby names anglo. AND furthermore, what if our babies dont NEED a job because they are business owners themselves?! OH WEE, dont get me started on that, but yea, lol.


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