Baby Names Are Still Black and White

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When a child comes into the world, a number of conversations must be had, and choices must be made. Some of a parent's decisions, like the naming of their children, will have lifelong consequences. There is a lot of power in a name; while parents are free to choose something that they just think is cute, they it can also recall a family history that spans generations. Whatever a child ends up with, the series of letters and sounds will influence how they are perceived, especially when it comes to race.

A contemporary example of perception and race comes from the story of Yolanda Spivey, a highly qualified worker with years of experience in insurance who couldn't find employment after the 2008 financial crash. Spivey wondered if the diversity segment of her Monster.com profile, which listed her as African American, had anything to do with the lack of interest, so she created a duplicate profile under the name Bianca White (a name that, taken literally, means White White) that listed her race as white. As you can see in this short video on the topic, Bianca White's job offers came rolling in.


Shouldn't exposure to different types of people over time have reduced or eliminated the discrepancy revealed by Spivey’s social experiment? As newer generations enter spaces of power, shouldn't we be more culturally sensitive or accepting of people who are from different racial backgrounds? We're living in a post-racial society, right? Wrong. The racism that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought to end has not gone away entirely, but has become sneakier, even when it comes to a name.

Spivey isn't alone. Studies, like this one by economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, corroborate Spivey's personal experience. For me, the politics behind the name my parents chose have come up time and time again. When asked about it, my mother will say something to the effect of, “I wanted your name to be different, but not too different.” I still wonder what that even means. Did she want to protect me, as a black woman, from what happened to Spivey? Did my parents try to shield me from racially biased comments, and struggles in joining the workforce, because of a name that others could perceive as black?

In making their decision, my parents swapped out one perception for another. My parents couldn’t have known that my peers of color would tease me and say, “That’s such a white girl name.” My parents couldn’t know that I would be approached by people of color, after we corresponded electronically, and be told, “I thought you were white.”

The problem of naming is complicated by the fact that so few members of the African diaspora have their own names to begin with. Direct descendants of a slaves often have the last name of the slave owner who possessed their ancestor (which explains why Washington is the “blackest” last name in the United States). I'm a brown girl with a curly afro, a "not too different" first name, and the last name of a British slave owner who bought my ancestors from what was then British Guiana, gave them his last name, and freed them upon abolition.

The fact that racism has seeped its way into our perceptions and preconceived notions about names, and which names are appropriate or inappropriate for a child, is troubling, and is further proof that we are not truly “post-racial.” Save a radical change in consciousness, it's something that we're going to have to deal with as it gradually changes over time. Spivey, myself, and others will just have to keep struggling to make our voices heard as young women of color. I challenge the notion that the name Veronica is limited to Archie Comics as often as I possibly can.