When you’re a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman named LaKiesha, life can get complicated.
Strangers burst out laughing when you tell them your name. Puzzled white people ask what your parents were thinking. Black people wonder if you’re trying to play a bad joke.
It can be exhausting constantly explaining yourself to white people, even though you’re white.
“At least one to three times a week, someone is saying something about my name,” says LaKiesha Francis, a 28-year-old bartender who lives in a small town in western Ohio. “It kind of gets old.”
We hear a lot about what are known as “black-sounding” names these days. Comics make fun of names like “D’Brickashaw Ferguson” or “Tyrasciuses.” Professors conduct studies on the success rate for job applicants with names like “Jamal.” Online commentators warn black parents not to give their babies names like “Keisha,” while others simply confess – as one white man did – “I truly don’t get the black name thing.”
But hardly any attention is paid to people like Francis and other white folks with distinctively black names.
They are those rare white people who can credibly say, “I’ll be black for a minute.” Francis says she’s glimpsed racial stereotyping, what it’s like to face discrimination and even a degree of acceptance from black people that she may have otherwise never known.
What she has discovered is that the names of Americans are as segregated as many of their lives. There are names that seem traditionally reserved for whites only, such as Molly, Tanner and Connor. And names favored by black parents, such as Aliyah, DeShawn and Kiara. Add into that mix names that are traditionally Asian, Latino or, say, Muslim.
But when you move through life with a name that violates those racial and ethnic boundaries, Francis has found that people will often treat you as an imposter.
“The first thing they’ll say is, ‘That’s not your name,’ or, ‘That’s not a name that suits you,’” she says. “If I go to a bar, they’ll say, ‘That’s not your name. Let me see your ID.’”
How LaKiesha got her name
Francis didn’t know much about the baggage attached to her name where she grew up, and still lives: Pitsburg, Ohio. She describes it as a “super-quiet” village of more than 300 people, virtually all of them white. The town has one main street and is surrounded by cornfields.
“I never realized my name was an African-American name because where I grew up we literally had one African-American child during the whole 12 years I had gone there in school,” says Francis, a petite woman who exudes a Midwestern friendliness. “No one said anything. I was oblivious.”
LaDeana Diver, Francis’ mother, says she wasn’t trying to make a political statement with her daughter’s name. She was trying to settle a disagreement. She and her husband Frank couldn’t agree on a name when she became pregnant. They eventually came up with a compromise while vacationing in Florida.
“I brought a baby-name book and that was about the only name we agreed on, “Diver says. “So she ended up LaKiesha.”
From the beginning, there was criticism. Diver says her relatives told her people wouldn’t be able to pronounce her daughter’s name. They said some might think there were black people in their family.
“I’m not prejudiced,” Diver says. “A name is a name. To me it doesn’t matter. I liked the name. I think it’s a pretty name.”
Where do distinctively black names come from?
A name isn’t just a name, according to history and social science. Give someone the wrong name and it can become a burden.
That belief is partly why many Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants who came to America in the early 20th century whitened their children’s names to avoid persecution and increase their chances of social mobility. It’s part of the reason why the Asian actress Chloe Bennet dropped her surname, Wang, to work in Hollywood.
That thinking was validated in a famous experiment in which researchers sent out fictitious resumes in response to actual help-wanted ads. Each resume had identical qualifications, save for one variable: Some applicants had white-sounding names such as “Brendan” while others had black-sounding names – such as “Lakisha.”
The white-sounding applicants were 50% more likely to get calls for interviews than their black-sounding counterparts, researchers found.
Francis says she has experienced this bias firsthand.
“There’s been more than one time that I’ve been very qualified for a job and I didn’t even get a callback, and I think it had to do with my name,” she says.
So if black-sounding names are looked at with such suspicion, why do some black people persist in using them? And where did the practice start in the first place?
The answers vary. Some say it began in the late ’60s and ‘70s when some black parents begin giving their kids names that reflected the influence of the Black Power movement and black pride. Some cite the impact of “Roots,” the 1977 miniseries. Others say inventive naming has counterparts in the “linguistic and musical inventions” that produced rap and jazz.
The sheer inventiveness of some black-sounding names has become so extreme, though, that it became the subject of a famous parody by the comic duo Key & Peele. Their “East/West College Bowl” skit featured black football players such as “Quisperny G’ Dunzoid Sr” and “Tyroil Smoochie-Wallace” announcing their names during pre-game introductions.
When a restaurant server refuses to pronounce your name
Tim Machuga is a software engineer who also knows what it’s like to be black for a minute. He is a white man with an African name. People who only know him by name often assume he is African and are startled when a fair-skinned, white guy of Polish descent opens the door.
“I run into people who say, ‘That’s an African name and you pronounced it correctly, Machuga says. “I always chuckle. Sure I did, because it’s my name.”
He says the startled expressions he sometimes gets when meeting people face-to-face force him to be more empathetic.
“It does make it easier for me to get outside my little shell and empathize with people, but it’s always a struggle,” he says.
But trying to move through life with a white face and a misleading name isn’t just a black thing. Talk to Yasmina Bouraoui and you’ll hear similar complaints.
She’s a white woman with an Arabic name.
Bouraoui is the 52-year-old daughter of a Belgian mother and a Tunisian father who lives in Lansing, Michigan. Her name is Arabic, but by law in the US she is considered white – and she looks white as well.
She recently had an experience that is common to many racial minorities: A white person just ignored her, and her name.
It happened when Bouraoui went to a busy restaurant one evening with a group of family and friends. As they waited outside for a table, a white waiter approached Bouraoui and asked for her name along with the number of people in her party.
“Yasmina, party of six,” she said.
“I need something easier to pronounce,” he said.
She repeated her name but he didn’t want to try to pronounce it. And then she was no longer there.
“He looks at a 12-year-old in our party and he says, ‘What’s your name?’ ” says Bouraoui, a manager with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “Now he’s just ignoring me.”
Bouraoui says she has relatives who have whitened their last names to gain more acceptance. But she’d feel as if she had disowned a part of herself if she did the same.
There was, however, one moment when she felt her name was accepted as American.
“When Barack Hussein Obama was named president and I no longer had to apologize for a Muslim name,” she says. “That was my moment of pride, when I felt normalized. It hit me when he was sworn in. This is America. We can be part of the fabric, too.”
Her name forced her to step outside her whiteness
Francis had to learn how to not apologize for her name as well. She says she didn’t become aware of its significance until she got married and moved to Clarksville, Tennessee, for a while with her husband Jarrett. She began waiting tables at a Ruby Tuesday in the city, which has a sizable black population.
That’s when she started getting double takes at the mention of her first name. Sometimes the reactions stung.
Once when she approached a table of black women and told them her name, they looked at her in disbelief.
“They took their menus and put them in front of their faces and started laughing,” she says. “They were laughing at me saying, ‘She’s not one of us.’ ”
Francis says she stepped away to compose herself before returning to take the women’s order.
“I was kind of angry because I felt like they were making fun of me, like I was trying to be part of their group,” she said. “And I wasn’t.”
The constant explaining became so much that Francis actually stopped telling customers her name unless they asked.
“I was joking with my co-worker one day and said, ‘I’m just going to tell them my name is Emily so I can avoid all of this,’ ” she says.
Yet in odd ways, the name allowed her to briefly step outside her whiteness. Some of her black co-workers even adopted her as one of their own.
They start giving her “dap,” the elaborate handshake rituals that some blacks use with one another to signal solidarity.
“I would not know what I was doing at all, but I would just go along with whatever they were doing,” she says.
They also defended her from rude customers as if she was the one being racially profiled.
“They would say, ‘She’s one of us.’ Or, ‘You don’t talk to her like that. She’s one of us.’ They were awesome. They were so nice.”
Despite the strange looks and tiresome comments, Francis has no regrets about her name. And she and her husband now have two kids, both with nontraditional names. Their son is Jace, and their daughter, Serenity.
Francis has learned to live with being black for a minute, and she has no plans to change.
“No, not ever,” she says. ” I love my name. I know it’s different. It would be so strange for someone to call me something different.”