As an early Christmas present this year, 19-year-old Keisha Austin got a legal name change. According to Jeneé Osterheldt of the Kansas City Star, this is because her classmates and teachers had made jokes and comments about her name — which they associated with " video vixens, neck-rolling and Maury Povich tabloid fodder" — for years. She now legally goes by Kylie.
Keisha didn't grow up in a diverse community; as Osterheldt puts it, "She wasn't surrounded by a lot of black people." As she got older, her classmates would make ignorant jokes about her name, implying that it was somehow "trashy" — for instance, one of Keisha's teachers once asked her if it was spelled with a dollar sign. Keisha told the Kansas City Star that she always felt uncomfortable: "It’s like they assumed that I must be a certain kind of girl. Like, my name is Keisha so they think they know something about me, and it always felt negative."
As tumblr user Sumney points out in a post entitled "What is it with Ghetto Names?":
All my life, I grew up being told that “black” names are ghetto and held by people who are likely to be trashy. If you know a girl named Laquisha, Latoya, Shaniqua, or Kelendria, she’s probably the neighborhood hoodrat, and even names like Tyrone and Tyrese are blacklisted in our society (pun intended). Statistically, it’s been proven that resumes and job applications that bear these names are more likely to go unread or end up in the trash can.
"Simply put, the only reason why black names are bad… is because they are held by black people," she concludes. The narrative that some people with recognizably "Other" names somehow embody garbage racist stereotypes is depressingly coherent to Americans — the Kansas City Star article mentions a scene in Crash in which an aggressive insurance claims supervisor is "of course" named Shaniqua. And, as Osterheldt arguest:
In our society, names like Abdul and Muhammad get flagged for security checks. Tran and Jesus get labeled illegal immigrants. Deonte and Laquita? People see baby mamas, criminals and affirmative action hires. Billy Bob and Sue? Hillbillies and trailer parks.
Many of these names are, of course, culturally meaningful and significant. But being in a position of blind privilege makes it so that you don't have to consider that, I suppose.
One of Keisha's friends encouraged her to keep her name and show her peers that "there is more to Keisha than ugly generalizations." Keisha understood her point and agrees that Keisha is a beautiful name — she just felt that it didn't fit her. "It's not something I take lightly," she told the Kansas City Star, crying. "I put a lot of thought into it. I don’t believe you should just change your name or your face or anything like that on a whim. I didn’t want to change my name because I didn’t like it. I wanted to change my name because it didn’t feel comfortable. I don’t connect to it. I didn’t feel like myself, but I never want any girls named Keisha, or any name like that, to feel hurt or sad by it.”
Says Keisha's mom, "[Her name] felt like a gift I gave to her, and she was returning it." She adds, "But she’s still the same person, regardless of her name. Her happiness is what is most important to me. I love and support her, and whatever she has to do to feel good on the inside, I have to be OK with that."
Image via Kansas City Star.