Monday, October 04, 2010

I Have a White Girl Name?

Good morning,

Since I wrote my memoir, Kinky Gazpacho, it's no secret that growing up I was called all kinds of names by other Black kids who questioned my authentic Negro experience. I was called Oreo, I was accused of acting/talking/dressing White all the time. It annoyed me to no end and took the better part of 10 years to figure out how my life experience fit into THE Black experience. But by age 30, I was feeling pretty Black. I was comfortable in my Black skin and I defied anyone to tell me that just because I couldn't use the verb 'fixin' properly in a sentence, that I wasn't really Black.

So imagine my surprise, as I approach the second half of my life, I am told that I have a White girl name. Yes, now I have been informed that my name, especially the way I spell it, is very Caucasian-like. Black girls aren't named Lori, apparently. Is this true? Have I finally made peace with my African heritage only to discover that my name doesn't mesh with my ethnic identity?

The funny thing is, the reason this name thing came up is because my business partner is named Tesia. That's pronounced Tee-sha. Rhymes with Keisha. Even before she met me, Tesia had been accused of having a Black girl name. Tesia is White. And now that we're business partners -- spreading the word about identity politics no less -- people have informed us that our names should have been reversed. People meet us and assume I must be Tesia and she Lori. Even after they meet us, they still call me Tesia and her Lori. Then they laugh as if we had planned this funny joke with our names. This has happened on numerous occasions to the point that I'm now wondering, did my parents give me a White girl name?

Not wanting to jump to conclusions, I did some research on official African-American girl names and, sure enough, Lori was nowhere on the list. In the "L" category, names like La-Teesha, Latoiya, and La'Wanda appear, but no Lori, not even a Laurie. You can see for yourself here on the official list.

So, what to do? I suppose it's not too late to head down to the courthouse and apply to change my name to La'Wanda. As a child I did always yearn for a more exciting name than Lori. When I was nine, I thought Oswald Davis was an awfully cool name, but that probably wouldn't help me now. And of course since I've written three books under the name Lori L. Tharps, I suppose I should keep that name for professional purposes. Oh, well.

What do you think Meltingpot readers? Is there such thing as a Black or White name? What does a name do for you as far as identity branding? Have any good stories of your own?

I'm listening.



nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Ha. I can so relate. My name is apparently very popular in the Caribbean, especially on the French Islands where it's pronounce Arlen (like it is in France).

In America, however, it's an old school white lady name from the 50s. Arlene Francis, Arlene Dahl. etc.

Now I live in Italy and it's pronounced, Arrrrlenay.

Nif said...

I was taking an African American studies class in college in which the professor talked about the rich variety of African American girls' names vs. the boring sameness of white names. Then I raised my hand. When reminded of my name, she had the grace to be embarrassed. But since I was named by my white mother, I think it just proved her point.

Nif said...

I supposed I should have explained that my name is Jennifer. I get called "Nif" because there are so very many of us.

Chandra Hoffman said...

HA! Before people meet me, they assume I am Black.
I also answer to many more Black versions of my name at places like doctor's offices. LaShandra, Shanandra and KaShandra.

Growing up with such an unusual name, the only time I ever heard it was once, age 8, when Bob Barker called out for "CHANDRA to COME ON DOWN!!!" and I remember running to the TV to see who else had my name, and there was a very BUXOM brown skinned ecstatic lady named Chandra barreling down the aisle.

But because of the sanskrit origins of my name, googling me also brings up many Indian doctors with the last name CHANDRA, Dr. Deepak Chandra, etc.

When asked, I just explain that it is Sanskrit, my parents were California hippies, and it means 'maiden of the moon.'

Lovelyn said...

My first name is Heather and growing up I was constantly told by other kids in school that was a white name. When I went to college I started using my middle name Lovelyn partly because I thought it was more exciting. My maiden name is Hunter and at the time the porn star Heather Hunter was rising in popularity. I didn't want to be associated with her so I dropped my first name. Funnily enough she's black too.

Dee said...

I was born in the West Indies and my name is Diane Stafford. Now in my mom's mind, that was pronounced (Dee-Anne) I spent 27 years trying to get people to get that right I gave up...just call me Dee.

Now who among us, has colloquial speak and proper speak? Because I know the difference and speak properly on the phone, I have shown up to interviews and could tell they were not expecting brown little me, with locs no less, as I wore at the time.

I'vw since moved past the perception factor to the meaning factor. My name means Divine, which after I discovered it, made total sense of my life.

Great question,


Leo Rising said...

OMGoodness! If I had a dollar each time this subject came into my life.

First, the white girl name is a new thing. Only in the last 20 years has a "black" name come to being. Think of your grandmothers and great grand mothers - didn't they all have "white" names? I am not going to get into acting white, for that would be a whole book. I use the advantages of having a "white" name - Rhonda.

Especially in business settings, my name gives me the opportunity to get a foot in the door before it is slammed shut because of my race. I speak and sound "white" too. I had no choice but to speak STANDARD English in my house hold and extended family. My family understood the importance of it in navigating life in America. I've gone to job interviews, after having spoken to the interviewer on the phone, sitting in the reception area... the person comes out and looks over me, "Where is Rhonda?" The receptionist points to me the ONLY other person in the room. "You're Rhonda?" Yes, and this goes back and forth three times. Sigh. I see and feel the stress coming off of the person's surprise and what do I do now stress. Not always are they disappointed but yes always surprised. SIGH.

I worked for a nonprofit, each year we'd have a national meeting. My fellow co-workers of color and I would compare how many "looks" and freezes we'd get when the people we've talk to on the phone all year see us for the first time. Another book or several articles on their response. It NEVER fails.

So in short. Having a white name - which is ridiculous, what is a black name, surely they are NOT African, there is no such thing either. How many tribes are on the continent? I digress, this is still America, we are FAR FAR FAR from post-racial. Having a white name CAN make a difference, by allowing you to get your foot in the door instead of the resume abyss, you know this still happens.

What happened to all the love for India Ire's song. I am NOT my hair, skin, or your expectations. I AM THE SOUL THAT LIVES WITHIN.

LT said...

I bet it sounds even better in Italian!

I think Nif is a great racially ambiguous name anyway. Keep them guessing.

Hi-larious. I never thought of your name as "Black" but now that you tell us this story, I get it. But I think I'll start calling you Moon maiden!

You, know it's true, I don't think I've ever met a Black Heather.

You are absolutely 'divine.'

Lauren said...

I went to a French program during HS where we were able to choose our names.
I chose "Laetitia" since it had a different sound but still started with the same letter as my own name. Several of my classmates told me they thought that "Laetitia" fit me better, perhaps because it looks/sounds like Latisha,etc but who really knows?

Black Presence said...

Oh dear i can relate too. Being mixed. And adopted my name is philip gregory. People never expect a black guy when they meet me. I know what u mean about the looks on peoples faces. Its the same when im delivering training.

People seem surprised that they can learn from me.

Anyway, phil gregory is a lot better name than what my birth mother wanted to call damien, lol

AnaCeleste said...

Wow! Interesting question! I wouldn't necessarily call some names "Black" and some names "White"; I just feel that there are certain names that people in the Black community tend to pick or prefer. Of course, there are words that have AFrican origins, but I view Blackness as a social construction more than anything. I have three brothers (Eric, Steven, and Philip), and out of the four of us, I have the most unique name: Anazette. I sometimes feel like the odd one out. People always ask me where the name came from (a 70s blaxploitation actress; my dad was a fan). No one's ever commented to me that my name is Black sounding or White sounding. People familiar with the italian liquer, anisette, immediately ask if that's where my dad got it. Sadly, I feel people immediately draw up an image of how a person looks when they read or hear their name. I wish it wasn't like this. Black sounding name or white sounding name, black people will still have to experience racism.

Anonymous said...

My name is Heather. I grew up in the Caribbean and knew a few other Heathers there. I live in NYC now and a few years ago I met another black Heather. I love my name wouldn't trade it for anything. My mother told me she had a neighbour when she was growing up who was name Heather and she loved the name and decided that if she ever had a girl Heather was going to be the name. If if matters I was born in the early seventies before the black centic baby naming took hold in the eighties.

Debora said...

I can related too. I am African American and throughout my school years black people accused me of "talking white." My first name is Debora (Hebrew)...pronounced Dee-bor-uh, so some people automatically assume that I am Jewish (and I'm not). I've had Jewish people ask, "Are you Jewish." My maiden name is McDell, so I've had sales people on the phone comment that I sound like a nice Irish girl. When I got married, I hyphenated my last name and added my Chilean husband's last name. So I just keep people guessing. LOL!

lifelearner said...

In my opinion: No there isn't such a thing as a Black or White name, but more so of popular girl's name and unique girl's name. I love names that are different and out the box. Now the spelling is where I have to stratch my head sometimes(lol). All in all I have friends names that are Natasha and Tonya (they are white) and friends name that are (Megan and Mallory-first time in my 33yrs of living they are black). I love when parents have a great sense of creativity and humor, make life much better!

Shanda said...

In high school, one obnoxious guy always called me "Shanaynay" - yes, like the character (or shall we say caricature?) from 'Martin' (not sure about the spelling). How we got that from Shanda (sounds like 'Rhonda') is beyond me. He also felt it was his duty to loudly and publicly encourage me to sing every chance he got, because I certainly would sound like Whitney Houston (not!). That, and play basketball, because can't all black people (again, not...I would score for the opposing team and just be glad I made a basket).
Funny, but there was a white girl in many of my classes named Chandra. No one ever said or spelled her name incorrectly, and I think it's much easier to flub than my name is. I made a conscious decision to ignore my senior year English teacher when, halfway through the school year, she still stumbled over the proper pronunciation of my name. When she asked me if I heard her, I said that she should know how to say my name by then. She was not amused.
I'm not exaggerating. It still happens. I still get tired of the added letters and syllables people try to tack onto it, but I love my name now. I used to be willing to kill to be a Denise or Michelle, but now I love my name's individuality.
And it's funny that some people bring up the "white girl" thing, because I'm biracial and have always had influences that are all over the map. I also talk "properly" and really love alternative music. I've received the "oreo" comment, as well as the "acting white" and the popular "you think you're better than us," among others. I think that the insane attempts to make my name more complicated than it really is are ways people try to make me seem more "black." I doubt they know how stupid it makes them seem?

Aritul said...

I was at an orientation once and I had to share a room with 3 other girls: 2 Americans and 1 French. Well, there was a particular moment when our new friend, the blond hair, blue eyed American girl, was out of our presence that I commented to the other American girl that I wasn't expecting her to look like that. She agreed.

You see, the blond haired, blue eyed American girl was named Tenyisha and it caught us both off guard. The French girl heard us commenting on her name and we then had to explain to her the difference between white names and stereotypical black names.

Aritul said...

*blond hair

Anonymous said...

I have a good African American friend named Andre. His identical twin brother is Chris. I will ask him if he thinks they have had different experiences based on their names. I have wondered why one has a "white" name (as Chris seems, although of course there is Chris Brown, and probably many many others, so I may be off base here), and one a "black" name? Interesting.


Mimi said...

I think America is really full of sh*t sometimes. Prime example, Lori Stokes on eyewitness news, shares the same first name as you.

Anonymous said...

Mary Allyson checking in with "what IS a black name?!" My parents also considered Mary Jennifer and Mary Susan, before settling on Mary Allyson! [my dad didn't like Susy or Jenny, so it was the nicknames, that tossed those out of the running :) ]
I think LeoRising is right, that these designations of white vs. black really only came about 20-30 yrs ago. Maybe it was in response to the black power/pride assertions of the 60's/70's. I first got called an "oreo" in the 80's, so....... sure my name contributed to that illustrious designation.....

Thea Ava Martinez said...

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