June 20, 2015

Lisa or Lakeysha: What's in a name?

In the aftermath of the hate-filled shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, my heart began to hurt terribly. I consider myself relatively un-bigoted and open minded. I have several black friends who I love dearly, but admittedly, I cannot begin to wrap my head around their experience or their despair. I will never truly understand what it's like to be black in America. I've started some discussions on social media and I've tried to ask questions. I've tried to listen and understand.

I wanted to write today's blog because unlike a social media discussion, this will not go away. This will be a permanent opportunity to think and question the different ways all of us may grow.

I pondered the times I have exercised subtle racism, some of which I've written about. One thing I believe strongly is that if I am unwilling to do some self-examination and try to consider where even on a micro-level I've been guilty, I need to expunge it and ask for forgiveness. I need to vow to do better and I need to encourage the same of others. It's the only way the needle moves.

One of the more subtle ways I'm guilty of racism is when I read a person's name. We all know what a "black" name is when we see it. The embarrassing thing is, I have to admit to mentally mocking those strange spellings and wondering how in the world to pronounce that name. Turns out, I'm not the only one who does that. According to a study from the Poverty Action Lab,  "Resumes with white-sounding names received 50 percent more callbacks than those with black names." (full report: Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination).

I've never done that for Giuseppi or Gianna, Raj or Raaka, Kieran or Siobhan, or Amtullah or Yahya. I've never wondered why their parents didn't give them an easier to spell or pronounce name. I've never been a big enough fool to actually ask someone why they didn't pick an easier name for their child. (Yes, I did that and my friend said, "How well do you think a Heather would survive in my world? She'd get mocked and teased daily for having such a white name.) I've never asked my friends why they'd choose Huxley or Hazel (names that are in the top growing elite baby names). This leads me to believe if I am so presumptuous to question what someone names their child, maybe I need to rethink myself.

This doesn't mean wipe away all my opinions. I still have a lot of opinions on names, and that's typical, it's why name lists exist and people spend nine months trying to think of a name for their baby. Why I should think any less of another parent's choice for their child's name? If that child is black and I have a hard time pronouncing that name, is MY problem, not the parents.

Where the problem comes in and where racism is at play is when I glance at a class roster and make assumptions about what sort of day it will be based on the names I see. Maybe a little chuckle as I navigate the apostrophes in places that I don't understand and letter combinations that I never would think to make. Little Keshaun and K'iana should proudly wear the first gifts their parents gave them. Maybe if we start to accept their right to have a name that speaks to their life and experience, we can begin to grow as a society.

It starts with a drop of acceptance hitting the water like a pebble.

Here are the names of the victims:
Rest in Peace
Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41
Cynthia Hurd, 54
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45
Tywanza Sanders, 26
Myra Thompson, 59
Susie Jackson, 87
Ethel Lee Lance, 70
Daniel L. Simmons, 74
Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49

My essay Trouble Maker was about a young black boy. I didn't want to label him black in my story because I thought it would bring an unnecessary piece to the story. When I wrote it, I wanted it to be a color-blind story. I've realized if my young trouble maker was a white boy, he never would have faced the same scrutiny. He may have been considered "high-spirited" or a little "rascal" instead of a "thug". We can do better. 

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