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!)