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It's time to put some 'respeck' on "black names"

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Names. They’re on our birth certificates, our death certificates, our birthday cakes and our tombstones. They’re on our degrees, awards, our tickets and reports. They hold weight, history and legacy. Literally and figuratively, our names are who we are.

To respect one’s name is to respect a very important, central (and obvious) aspect of identity.

Unfortunately, a large part of the black experience is understanding or even expecting that people won’t respect your name. You eventually get used to the underlying tones of judgment in “How would you spell that?” and “Oh, that’s different.” They are the almost inevitable follow-ups to “black names,” or stereotypically black names, rather. The names with at least three syllables, “too many” apostrophes, more vowels than usual, maybe a hyphen, and an extra 'q' or two. The names that usually prompt questions such as “How are they going to get a job?” or “Where will they fit in?” And it’s these questions which immediately suggest a lack of respect. Why is it that the presence of “black names” implies the absence of respectability? Why do names lead to assumptions about the likelihood of success or employability or socioeconomic status? Can we assume that you asking “How are they going to get a job?” means that you wouldn’t hire them; that “Where will they fit in?” means that you wouldn’t accept them? Names such as BonQuiQui and ShaNaeNae are used to shame not only individual black women, but black women as an entire demographic. They’re called ghetto or ratchet or hoodrats before they even speak. In addition to being disrespectful, it’s senseless. There is no correlation between the amount of apostrophes in a name and average salary; no connection has ever been made linking names to intelligence or sociability. When flipping through the headers of resumes, both Deandre and Dan should be on level playing fields. Don’t tell me that Shaniqua deserves less than Shannon based solely on what she was named. And I won’t act like I haven’t scrunched my nose up at a name or side-eyed a mother for her choice, but it is a behavior I’ve been working to unlearn. When speaking in the realm of respect for culturally black names, learning is just as important as unlearning. Nigerian-American actress Uzoamaka Aduba’s mother explained this concept best. As a kindergartener, Aduba asked her mother if she could be called Zoe since no one could pronounce Uzoamaka. Her mother’s response, as she told The Improper Bostonian, was “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.” And this reply is perfect, as it touches on yet another form of disrespect many black people face in relation to their names — laziness. Ethnic names are too often shrugged off as “too hard,” and regarded as not worth learning. And as names are directly tied to identity, this shrug can take a toll on confidence and sense of self, especially within a child. Aduba’s case is similar to that of my middle school friend, Abdijibar. Whenever teachers got to his name on the attendance list, there was a long pause. They’d struggle through it, ask for help, and eventually shake their heads with frustration as they moved on to the next name. One teacher, instead of even attempting to say his name, looked at it and said, “I’m going to call you by your last name instead.” And so she did, for the entire year. She thanked him for letting her “give him a nickname,” failing to realize that the assignment of nicknames is different than the disregard of actual names. One is symbolic of a relationship, the other prevents the development of a relationship. Acting as if his name didn’t exist was not only lazy and disrespectful, but inconsistent with how she treated other students. I watched this same teacher learn to pronounce complex German and Russian names, while she completely ignored the name of another student. The situation made me begin to wonder when exactly “Let me know if I mispronounce your name” turned to “Can I call you ______ instead?” and then became “I’m going to call you ________ instead.” More and more the answer seemed to be when the subject had brown skin. To this day, I struggle to understand how names like Schwarzenegger and Stephanopoulos roll off the tongue, while Uzoamaka and Abdijibar are regarded as too hard to say. And to this day, it saddens me that such a large part of the black experience is understanding, or even expecting, that people won’t respect your name; that so many eventually get used to the underlying tones of judgment in “How would you spell that?” and “Oh, that’s different;” that so many aren’t willing to learn and unlearn in order to preserve respectful relationships that so many won’t make Birdman’s simple demand: Put some respeck on my name.

How do you cope with your name being disrespected? Let us know in the comments below.


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