The topic of “black names” has once again found its uncomfortable way into our consciousness.
Days after a Reddit user asked why black parents choose names like D’Brickashaw and Barkevious for their children, a mother-to-be fretted, via the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, that naming her son the “black” name preferred by her child’s father would consign him to having “all the world’s unspoken markings of a criminal — the wrong skin color and the wrong name.”
Look. I don’t know any other way to say this. But cut this shit out, for real.
In a piece for The Daily Beast, Jamelle Bouie gave a cogent response to this lingering question about black names. As Bouie pointed out, there’s a double standard inherent in ridiculing names like D’Brickashaw and Barkevious, but not Saxby, Tagg, or Reince.
The issue goes beyond the mere double standard. Black name policing is yet another form of respectability politics. The term respectability politics refers to the notion that black people can eradicate racism by presenting themselves as nonthreatening. Respectability politics ignore the fact that standards of respectability — as defined by one’s speech, dress, hairstyle, and even dance moves — are an ever-moving target, as hard to pin down as a bead of mercury. Moreover, since black people have been found threatening even when they are doing nothing more than approaching a police officer for help following a serious car accident, respectability politics serve only to shame black people for their chosen self-expression — a limitation the dominant culture never places on itself.
The truth is, although there have been studies suggesting that a black-sounding name may affect job interview prospects, in this age of Google — not to mention social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter — it is far too easy for potential employers to put a face to the name on a resume. And even if your black child with the culturally ambiguous name manages to be one of the few with no pictures or videos on the Internet, that won’t make him or her any less black when she walks in the door for an interview. People who are inclined to be biased against black people will find a way to do it, regardless of one’s name.
If respectability politics actually worked, one might assume I’ve lived a life devoid of racism. My name is about as non-black sounding as it gets. My Southern, Christian parents were culturally conservative and never allowed us to follow the latest style fads or trends. I attended college and law school at predominantly white institutions. Until about a year after my now-12-year-old son was born, I even straightened my hair. Yet, I, too, have been affected by racism. Shocking, I know.
My parents didn’t choose the name Carolyn as part of a master plan to de-racinate my life. Having a racially ambiguous name didn’t make me any less black, on paper or in real life. My resume has always contained racial markers, regardless of my name. I was born and raised in Detroit. I joined black student organizations at Harvard Law School. I currently live in Harlem. I have always listed my address and organizational memberships on my resume, even if the address and memberships screamed “black person!”
Truthfully, I always assumed my credentials, not my name, got me past the gatekeepers.
But I learned the hard way that credentials, not to mention actual hard work and talent, are meaningless in the face of the racist acts of a determined racist.
Back when I was in private practice at a law firm, I was given the opportunity to work on a pretty important deal. The main client contact was European. I wasn’t one of the fortunate group that traveled to Europe to meet with the client. But I’d spoken to him several times on the phone. He was charming, friendly, and always pleasant to talk to.
Until he met me.
The client flew to New York to meet the negotiating team. As I stood in line with the other attorneys waiting to be introduced to him — all white men — I noticed he would not make eye contact with me. When my turn came, I shook his hand and told him what a pleasure it was to finally meet him after having spoken to him on the phone so many times.
He jumped. Literally jumped. Like a man who had just seen a ghost. Or a spook.
From then on, he wanted nothing to do with me. All of a sudden, my work — work that he had praised by phone — was no longer good enough. He insisted the firm put another associate on the deal. As this was the year I was up for partner, having a client criticize my work was a pretty big blow, both to my ego and my partnership prospects. I was relegated to handling less sexy, though still important, parts of the deal that involved minimal contact with the client and his equally racist family.
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, after the deal closed, the client refused to pay the firm for one dime of all the hours I’d billed on the matter. 300+ hours worth of time — written off.
When I was asked what I had done to enrage the client, I stated bluntly that it was racism, pure and simple. I pointed out that the client had been comfortable working with me and had even praised my work to other partners, until he met me in person. I described the way he almost jumped out of his skin when he saw me, and how rude he was to me the few unavoidable times we were in the same room together. The whole experience was humiliating. I wanted to quit the deal so many times — but I knew I would have no shot at making partner at all if I did.
As it turned out, I had enough support in the firm that I did make partner. But the experience left me wary. I got pregnant with my son shortly after making partner, and his birth, coupled with the departure of my favorite partner, gave me an out.
Today, Carolyn Edgar remains a racially ambiguous name, but if you Google it, my happy African-American face pops up first in search results. I suspect there is at least one white Carolyn Edgar out there, perhaps more than one, who is annoyed by this. I can’t hide my race behind this name, nor do I even want to. I may not have a black name, and I can even manage not to “sound black” on the phone, but if you see me, there’s no doubt. I am who I am. If someone dislikes me, or is afraid of me, or wants to hurt me, simply because I’m black — that is their problem. I can’t make it my problem, because there’s nothing I can do about it.
We black people cannot racism-proof our own lives, let alone our children’s lives. It is fruitless to think that naming a child a name that doesn’t “sound black” offers any measure of protection against harm or ensures access to equal opportunity. The officers that shot Jonathan Ferrell didn’t bother to find out that he had a safe name, that he was a college graduate, that he had a fiance and a family he simply wanted to return home to. He was shot for seeking help from the police while black. No one knew his name until after he was already dead.