What’s In a Name? Mugshots, Apparently

20 Sep 2013

written by Carolyn

Style: "Porcelain vivid"

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.

27 Comments on What’s In a Name? Mugshots, Apparently

  1. Edward

    First the unusual “white” names Jamelle cited in his article are actually old European names or words. That is quite different than the plethora of made up “black” names which have no roots in African or any culture.

    Second your personal racist story actually shows that respectability politics, whatever that means, actually work. If your parents had not raised you in a sober thoughtful way doubtful you would ever have become a lawyer. The fact that one client is a bigot does not mean conducting yourself accordingly is useless. In fact as you point out because if the reputation you developed at the firm the partners knew it was his ignorance not your work was the problem. So you still made partner. Conducting yourself with grace and dignity will get you far no matter your race.

  2. K. Nicole Williams

    It seems Edward is missing the point. Respectability politics is not about raising your children ina “sober thoughtful way”, it is about the myth that by being as minimally culturally black as you can that you can somehow diffuse racism or shield yourself from the effects of racism. Which Carolyn showed is false through her story. She would have been as hard a worker if her name was “idenitifiably black”.

    Carolyn, thank you for this post. As someone with an easily idenitifiable black name, I know about being shunned because of it. After reading an article about black names and job prospects I sent out my resume under my given name and with my first initial and middle name. I’ll let you guess who got the most call backs. Identical resumes, but different names and overwhelmingly the “less threatening” name got the most call backs. Like you I can sound not black on the phone, but once I step in the room I’m black take it or leave it.

  3. Ariel

    Incredible that you were able to power through a tough situation, Carolyn! You’re a strong person and a more professional that many.

    The race conversation surrounding names is absurd – Freakonomics had an interesting study on how names affect life outcomes, and when controlling for other factors, it has little predictive power. What DOES affect life outcomes is others’ biases.

    And @Edward: You must be joking. Because they’re derived from words and old surnames, its more acceptable to society? “Wendy” didn’t exist as a name before the 20th Century, and please check out these old Puritan names: http://www.futilitycloset.com/2009/03/23/whats-in-a-name-10/

    So which should I name my firstborn, Edward – Barkevious or Fly-Fornication?

  4. Carol

    This is a wonderful piece, Carolyn. Thank you for sharing your experiences and going deeper into this discussion. You can imagine the experiences I have had when people realize that Carol Cain isn’t what they “expected”…and I have had people tell me as much. At this point we are so used to the various reactions that follow when we share our stories…like the ones where others try to discredit your reality, emotions, and truth as being something less “dramatic” than you portray it to be and offering a conclusion that allows them self-comfort and also the freedom to proceed as close minded as usual. But there are many others who might actually “hear” you and learn something more outside of themselves. And that is all you can hope for.

  5. j.stone

    Great article, and Edward, no matter how old the name, the name was made up by someone. Black people in America have the right to create names just as the English did many centyr6ies ago.

  6. Daria Dykes

    I agree with the point that it is ridiculous to demean black names and not white ones. I don’t completely agree that the name doesn’t matter because the skin color assures racism. Yes – a black person will encounter racism no matter how “conservative” her name. But not all experience it equally. You encountered racism but still became a partner at a law firm. How many LaTanyas or Shanequas do you know who have gotten that far? Of the successful black women I have known personally, the names that come up are Shirley, Janice, Annette, Sheila. On the other hand, I have known black women named LaTanya, Kanesha, Shanequa. But I haven’t met an attorney, a doctor, or a professor with a name like that. I think it makes a difference.

    I have had opposite experiences to yours – previous to the television show with my name, nobody in the US had heard of it. So on paper, everybody in the south assumed I was black. I’ve gotten a lot of sighs of relief over my blue eyes. But still – having an unusual name, a name that people worry they are mispronouncing – it never helps. They always continued to watch me closely, as if perhaps when nobody was looking I might turn black. When suspicion is the first response to a person (in person or on paper) that never completely goes away. It’s irrational, but it’s true.

    However, African-American names should not be avoided because of discrimination. The dominant culture must learn to appreciate them. They tend to sound beautiful, after all – what’s not to love about “Quvenzhané”? I want that name!

  7. Rae

    Ridiculed until one of the Caucasian ancestors use it, then it will become all the rage and make it onto the “the most popular names” list.

  8. Kendra

    @Edward, did you read the last paragraph? Lemme post it for you again.

    “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.”

    Respectability politics do not save black lives because we are seen as unrespectable by virtue of our skin.

  9. amanda michelle jones

    i’m always conflicted by this debate. on the one hand, i agree, my blackness is unavoidable. i vividly recall meeting white interviewers who are utterly shocked to see all my blackness walk through the door & extend my hand. and let’s not talk about being at a doctor’s office & watching a nurse struggle to verify the ‘amanda’ in my name because she sees me & thinks there were some invisible letters that she was supposed to pronounce.

    on the other hand, i have been ‘in the back room’ as hiring managers trashed résumés & applications based solely on the names at the top. i recall overhearing conversations – including white AND black folks – discussing name ‘appropriateness’ in deciding which participants to represent our agency in marketing materials, program opportunities, etc.

    ultimately, though, i do believe in the importance of names having meaning. call me old fashioned or whatever (i do take this belief from various ancient traditions), but i think that every time we say a person’s name, we are speaking something into/about that person’s life. what significance does “d’brickashaw” have? why did his parents choose that name? these are the things that concern me the most. yet, i fully acknowledge that many people do not share these concerns. i personally find that disappointing & discouraging, but recognize that i should work to be more accepting of people’s agency. because that’s ultimately what this is about.

  10. Carolyn

    There are plenty of doctors, lawyers, educators, and businesswomen with names like LaTanya and Shawneequa. I am attending the Corporate Counsel Women of Color Conference next week. Conference speakers, who are all senior executives and partners, include Dionysia, Tamika, Lanesha, Ndenisarya, and Towanna. Other women listed in the program book include Precious, Aarti, and Nachael.

  11. Janis

    Can I say something without getting a pile-on? I think when it comes to “black names,” most whites just wonder, what’s up with that? Since the unique name seems to be an African-American thing, and so many names sound “unusual” (compared to the ubiquitous Dianes, Jasons, Michaels, etc), whites just wonder why the trend, even if we/they sound judgmental at times. These names weren’t around in 1960. White folks might like to see that question addressed, not a parsing of implicit meanings in every response that happens.

  12. amj

    so i didn’t see ariel’s comment posted when i wrote. ariel totally wins the internet. i vote fly-fornication, btw.

  13. Carolyn

    Janis, what’s up with names like Eagle, Runner, Rumer, Scout, Declan, and Apple? Not to mention Neveah. Do you feel that you can speak on behalf of all white parents who choose unusual names for their children? If white parents can choose unconventional names for their children without criticism, why do black parents get so much flak – from black and white people alike – for doing the same thing? Choosing unique names is hardly an African American thing. Many “black” names that white people consider “unusual” are pretty common in black communities, they’re just unfamiliar to you. I suggest you check out the Reddit thread where this question was apparently asked and opinions offered.

  14. Jake Hamby

    I can’t help but think of the Freakonomics chapter on the demographics of names, particularly because my given name is #1 on the list of “whitest names”, which I found strangely unsurprising. Jacob is a separate entry in the top 10, but it says “Jake” on my birth certificate, so there you go.

    I can’t remember most of the other names easily, but I’ll never forget that my African-American counterpart with the “blackest name” in California (where they got the name and demographic info from, and also the state where I was born) would be named DeShawn.

    I don’t have a lot of strong opinions on the subject other than hoping that I manage to do a good enough job of separating what someone looks like and sounds like and what name their parents gave them with their talents and skill set when I’m interviewing a candidate for a software engineer job at Google. I have some thoughts on that topic that I’ve been meaning to put into a blog post at some point.

    As a side note, since I have some Mormon ancestry, several people have commented on the similarity between some stereotypical “black” names and equally stereotypically Mormon names. Lots of names starting with Le and La and De and similarly unusual spellings. Since the LDS communities in the Mormon Corridor were and are historically white supremacist, it seems most likely to be some sort of parallel linguistic evolution of two separated English speaking communities wanting to give children names to mark them as part of their own community without making them any less American.

  15. Nic

    I’d point out to the commenter who wants to say that people with black names aren’t successful, I’d point out that what you likely experiencing is either a result of your generation OR that perhaps you aren’t among the ranks of the elite professionals that you claim to know so much about. It’s kind of like the natural hair debate. I feel as if the women who claim that you can’t be successful in corporate America with natural hair aren’t actually the women in line for those jobs that they think you need a relaxer to get.
    The names that people from my mom’s generation, Betty, Susan, Shirley, Sheila, Ursula are NOT names you see many Gen-Xers or Millenials with, and they certainly aren’t what people from those generations are calling their kids either.
    Names go in and out of style, and as you see the black Gen-Xers move up the ranks in corporate America then you will in fact see those names more frequently.
    I don’t have an “ethnic” name but can say that several of my black classmates at my Ivy League school did and no, there is no correlation between who has succeeded professionally and who had the last black name. B/c as Carolyn pointed out, it’s the black face that shows up which will result in some people showing their true colors, and we have probably ALL had that moment where a person that you were speaking with on the phone had a jaw-dropping stare upon finding out that your skin was not white.
    Black Gywneth is not going to have an easier time than black Latanya because both of them will have to get interviewed in person, or will have to meet a client in person, or go into a hospital room/examination room to consult with a patient.
    Try again.
    And yes, I’d love for a white person to answer the question about why it’s okay for a white child to have a made-up name like Coco or Apple but not for a black child to have the same.

  16. Whitney

    We need to understand that the “isha”, “meeka”, half mom & half dad names are now young adults who happen to be professionals. These people are in their 30′s now, working and taking care of business. We have always had to work our ass off to get ahead and having a unique or different name isn’t gonna change a thing. My daughter is a senior in high school and I just had to fill out a paper with the phonetic spelling of her name, just to make sure all the names are pronounced correctly at graduation next spring. My daughter has a simple name that means a lot to me, but I did give both of my girls two middle names, does that matter? The simple fact is when white people name their kids after Runner, Apple, Scout and whatever it’s clever and thought provoking of that parent, but not the same for black parents. My problem is giving them names that they can’t spell when they start school, let’s work on that. Carolyn thanks for opening up this discussion.

  17. fafa


    As I noted at ‘Black Girl in Maine’, Nikisia Drayton’s piece had steam blasting out my ears, so I was relieved to come across her critical piece and, through it, yours…

    I am dismayed, however, that the criticism focuses on the futility of slave names and doesn’t address the injustice of the slave name bias. I mean, without even getting into HOW Kunta became Toby, how is it that so-called educated black folk don’t even question the ongoing pressure for black folk to conform to the arbitrary standards of white people? ESPECIALLY given the history?


    See, black folk require better analysis of the black experience. The next, vital phase of race justice — which must address the ongoing trauma from 400 years — requires it. Unfortunately, we’re not yet equipped; there is an asymmetry between the tools of race justice — still oriented toward overt manifestations of race terror — and the current demands. Leadership here is almost completely lacking…

    The fact is, we lack that certain amount of self-validation/definition/determination that a being requires to survive, thrive and be productive in this life. Without it, we will continue to disproportionately suffer and we will never regain wholeness — much less have swagger. This is true, no matter how much our slave names/soul-less articulation/degrees/titles/condos/bling/melanin allergies continue to delude us…Seems to me that black folk with no commitment to addressing this degenerative deficiency, who enable it instead, are counter-progressive — for blacks and, in turn, humanity.

    And, EDWARD: C’mon. Of course, ALL names are made up. Your white/western supremises (read: white/western supremacist premises) AND, worse, your obliviousness to them, blind you to this fact. And, if you’re black, they keep you from seeing for yourself…

  18. Carolyn

    So pointing out the futility of conforming to “white” naming standards is not questioning the ongoing pressure for black people to conform to them? Oh.

  19. fafa

    Respectfully, Carolyn, there’s a difference between the futility of slave names and the immorality of the slave name bias: With the former we’re saying it doesn’t work. With the latter, I’m saying it’s dead wrong; an example of ongoing white supremacism that, seems to me, self-determined black folk would not validate — for the sake of black folk, white folk, humanity…

    Nevertheless, I do appreciate the discussion. I even referred a coupla folk to it (who told me about your response).

  20. Kai

    I am torn as well. I am black and I actually have a Japanese name, for no other reason than my mom loved the culture while pregnant and gave me that name. Because I am black and raised with intelligent kids (black, white, and hispanic) diversity is was promoted growing up and appreciated. We were taught to respect each other’s differences at school and home. However, I have been misjudged as well. People believe I am asian until they see me. I have a great personality and am great at what I do so I usually win them over. However, I have seen discrimination against several cultures not just black and white, but also Asian, African, Jewish, Hispanic – all related to names.

    I will be honest ans say I cringe when I meet little girl names “Alize” and “Hennessey”, or a little boy named “Drake” or “Quadavion”, just because that was the parent’s favorite at the time the child was born. I can’t blame the kid, I’m more upset with the parent for being so … Meanwhile I cringe just as much when I see a kid named Se7en or Symbol or Blanket. It doesn’t make it anymore right because it comes from a white parent or a celebrity. I think the issue with naming your child does speak to the direction and purpose you set for the child. I love a unique name with a purpose. I think its awesome, but to purposely name your child something to prove your point about ownership and rights is wrong. Unless you change your name too, don’t do that to a kid. They have enough issues to fight.

    However, I also realize that if a person is at a certain level, college grad, master’s, doctorate, advanced skill or craft, etc., I could care less about your name. You have clearly demonstrated your are skilled even if your parent’s weren’t when they named you .lol

    Racism and prejudice is not just against blacks. Someone who is racist cares for no one outside of their comfort zone. I’ve seen Indians (from India) be racist against one culture and connect with white people, only to be mistreated and disrespected by the white people they prefer. I’ve seen Hispanics from one country look down on and refuse to hire Mexicans or some other Hispanic culture they don’t like. I don’t think naming your child Mary, Mary-Beth, Marqueesha, or Maria is the issue, I believe naming your child with no purpose and raising them without one is more a tragedy.

  21. Jimmy

    I’m confused. Are people frequently arrested because of their names?

  22. Ralph Kenol

    What do you think about Roland Fryer’s paper on this subject? It seems to provide an interesting perspective.

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