Are Distinctively African-American Names a Thing of the Past?

Back when I worked as an editor at the Times Magazine, we held weekly or twice-weekly editorial meetings at which you’d go around the table and suggest story ideas. There were many varieties of ideas, including: Dutiful but Dull; Dutiful and Worthwhile; Sexy but Substance-Free; Just Not Interesting; and everyone’s favorite: Interesting — if True.

Into this final category falls a report that a federal judge in Detroit has taken away from African-American mothers the right to name their babies:

[A] federal judge ruled today that black women no longer have independent naming rights for their children. Too many black children — and many adults — bear names that border on not even being words, he said. “I am simply tired of these ridiculous names black women are giving their children,” said U.S. Federal Judge Ryan Cabrera before rendering his decision. “Someone had to put a stop to it.”

Interesting — but true? Not even close, as the folks at Snopes.com explain. Which means, if nothing else, that our chapter in Freakonomics called “Would a Roshanda by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?” isn’t headed for obsolescence just yet.

(Hat tip: Fred Telegdy.)


J

I'd be interested in seeing the distribution of where "distinctively African American" names are most commonly used. I suspect it's a black variant of the practice among white families in the southeastern US of giving children a waspy surname as their first name. Just as I can't recall ever meeting anyone named Rashonda or Shaqhanna while growing up on the west coast, neither can I recall ever meeting anyone whose first name was Preston or Taylor. When I moved to the south after college and those names were everywhere. The use of those sort of names has spread, but my observation has been that it's still far more common in the south than in other parts of the country.

Johnston

Interesting how the subtext of many comments is the white way is the right way.

tracy

I'm Asian and I have an Asian friend whose mom named her Melonie (pronounced mel-own-ee instead of Melanie mel-an-ee) because her mom was craving melons when she was pregnant.

Glenn

How about Chinchilla Zest? I just saw this on Utah page. Wow.

ALexW

That's it, I'm naming my kid Integrity Success Wright, or if a boy Intelligent Dilligent Wright.

Something must be said for the 'genetics' side of thing. Surely if a parent is so ill informed to name their child Floquisha, then it doesn't bode well for the kid amongst the 'apple not far from tree' crowd.

Sean

Quote from a comment on the article:

"""
Stefani // March 14, 2008 at 10:48 am

THIS IS NOT TRUE!!! After reading this article I was appalled to see such ignorance coming from such an "esteem" person-a federal judge. So, I took the liberty to go to: http://www.fjc.gov/history/home.nsf and THERE IS NO JUDGE BY THIS NAME- U.S. Federal Judge Ryan Cabrera. Please feel free to look it up and you will also find that this is the OFFICIAL federal-judge database and that it dates back to 1789 and it was just updated TODAY.

I also took the liberty to go to explore this website further, and at the bottom of the article, it is marked as "Humor" and in the "About" section of the Peoples News' website, it is listed as a humorous editorial.

I think this article is ignorant, and it truly shows how low someone will stoop just to get a "laugh."

Finally, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution would protect individuals from a "real" ruling such as this garbage.

To this end, please pass the word that this article is baseless and honestly it is a mockery of the Black race, which should not be taken lightly.

Respectfully,

Stefani R. Williams, Esq.
"""

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AaronS

Is it racist for a businessman to not hire Turkeesha's? Let me play devil's advocate myself....

Just as music can evoke certain feelings/moods (a lot a horror filsm wouldn't be near as scary without the music), so, too, does a name, for better or worse, evoke a certain perception.

If I as a businessman get a call from "Tiffany Lauderdale," you can bet that I'm seeing a girl in a red, convertible Lexus, bought by her CEO father, with blond hair flying, and a newly-minted college degree under her belt. Of course, the truth is that she will likely fall short of this perception, and that may be damaging to her.

But on the other hand, if I get a call from "Turkeesha Shayrondel Lauderdale," another perception come to mind. I say this with, I trust, the appropriate amount of self-reproach, but that name evokes the notion of someone raised in the ghetto, who speaks ebonics, dresses "ghetto," and so forth. Do I want to hire someone like that? Fortunately, if I give the person a chance to interview, I may be pleasantly surprised--I mean, they can't control what they were named (as Obama had not choice in the matter either).

And to be fair, if I got a call from someone name Suzy May Lauderdale" or "Billy Bob Lauderdale," certain thoughts are evoked--trailer parks, "Deliverance," and the such like.

I KNOW it's not right. But that is just how we are. And if someone is so ignorant as to name their child some far out name that inspires thoughts of the "ghetto" rather than appropriate interest, then you have to wonder what sort of genes were passed on to the kid (a Freakonomics thing).

I do hope that in all cases, though, we will never exclude someone JUST because of their name. After all, there might be some sparkingly Turkeeshas out there who would light up our businesses with efficiency, honesty, hard-work, and loyalty. I'd hate to never even give them a second glance.

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sh

I have a weird first name, completely made up and definitely not a real word. I love it.

One very sad thing is, though, that when I put my weird name on a resume, nary a call troubles my phone. When I use my normal-looking middle name on the same resume--lots of calls. I have no illusions that this difference doesn't result from my first name looking "ethnic." Discrimination is still all too rampant.

PhilK

Playing Devil's Advocate:

How are names particularly sensible in the first place? I'm Philip...what's that supposed to mean? ("Lover of Horses" supposedly). Now I understand things like Turkeesha (which is hilarious btw) is going to be a problem from a business and racism perspective, but from a strictly logical perspective how is it any worse than 100's of other words that could be chosen for names? It's not a spelling or convenience issue, look at "normal" names like Erica/Ericka/Erickah/Ericah. What's really "wrong" with Turkeesha? (aside from the fact that it makes me laugh every time I hear it).

Maria

My husband is black, and I am white. We gave our son an African name (Amari), which is often mispronounced. We gave careful consideration to naming our son-- nothing "ghetto" or too soft. Like it or not, ones name gives a first-impression, and that means a lot as an adult. It is something that not only African Americans need to consider, but all persons need to consider. White people have some wacky names too!

prklypr

Has no one heard of the term "satire"? The report in the link clearly states that it is a satirical piece. People obviously don't read all the way thru or they would have seen the disclaimer at the bottom. FYI, check out 'Visible Man' by Colson Whitehead in yesterday's NYTimes - talk about an excellent piece of satire!

di

Has this blog or Tierneylab been keeping track of which name story comes up most, Shi-Thead, Assh-ole, or Female? If I had a nickel for every teacher and nurse who's told me those stories, I could buy at least a dozen of the high calorie apple fritters at Starbucks.

jesse

It's not just black people who give their kids strange names. For some reason people in Utah (probably one of the states with the smallest black populations) love to give their kids stupid names. Here's a good site about it: http://wesclark.com/ubn/.

nik

Any "weird" african-american name (other than shi-thead!) is probably going to be better than 'john' which of course stands for toilet! So there.

PaulB

When I was calling our friends to announce the birth of our daughter Caroline, one of them mentioned that the name passed "the name test": Given the child's full name (first-middle-last or whatever), which of these sounds better in front of it:
1) "Supreme Court Justice"
-or-
2) "Now appearing on center stage"

It's stuck with me ever since. Just a little slice of common sense. (Because if you want to be a stripper you can take a stage name. Not as easy on the bench.)

B K Ray

Hooray for Turkeesha!!! And all the other black people who accept their disenfranchisement and name their children first names as unpronoucable as a slavic last name, not caring that the Toms, Johns and Davids of the contemptable corporate worlds will never manage to say and therefore choose to never manage. How free they are from contributing to a system that hates them to that degree. More power to them. I envy them.

Chewxy

The People's News is actually a very interesting satire site :)

rob

horribile but true story....a good friend of mine was making some phone calls at work and came across a woman named "Turkeesha" explaining to him that her mother loved thanksgiving.

Bill Matthews

Hey Steve: as the writer of the satirical Naming Rights article you cite (and co-founder of The Peoples News), I never meant for readers to think it was real. But as evidenced by the tremendous response the article continues to receive, it's obvious the very unique names my fellow African Americans give their children is a topic that merits continued discussion.

Bill Matthews
Editor in Chief
The Peoples News
http://thepeoplesnews.wordpress.com/

Brian

Maybe not as bad as Coolnike or Beerbong, but a name that certainly isn't going to win you any points in the business world...

Unless you work at Butterball.