Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What's in a Name? Race vs. Class

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

So, you know we're still slogging over names for babygirl. I don't know why nothing feels right yet, but every day I'm trying out new names. Feeling how they roll off the tongue. Hearing how they sound when yelled across the room. (You know, as in, Princess Tianna, stop sticking marbles up your nose!!!!) Working out the inevitable shortenings and nick names that will come. I want a unique name, yet I want something that links my daughter to her families both here and in Spain. And of course, I want a name that fits this little girl who already is making her personality known with her strong kicks and aerobic moves in my belly.

Okay, so the other day I threw out a name to el esposo. He wrinkled his brow right away and said, no. He looked as if I'd suggested something truly distasteful. "What's wrong with that name?" I asked. And he said, " that name is low class or common in Spain." Now my husband comes from the deep south of Spain, the region that the entire north of Spain looks down on as low class in a way. He fully understands the wickedness of classism, but there he was saying that this name I'd selected was "common." So I chastised him. I called him a snob. I accused him of all kinds of bourgeois elitism. And he just shook his head and shut me down with one sentence.

"Would you name your daughter Qua'Neesha of JaQuanna?" Day-um. He got me. I'm a snob too. Or am I?

First of all, I don't believe any race can claim a certain name? But like it or not, since the 1980s we have developed what have come to be known as ghetto baby names. I don't really like the term ghetto, but it does serve a purpose and in my mind, ghetto refers to class, not race. (Please read Cora Daniels' excellent book, Ghetto Nation for more on this topic.) And as such, 'ghetto' baby names are not restricted to Black people, they are restricted to people who name their kids after their favorite alcoholic beverage, luxury automobile, snack food, porn star and/or any combination of the aforementioned with excess apostrophes and questionable spelling. I have a White friend who named her baby girl something so cringe worthy she might as well have just called her boo-boo. But at the end of the day, I do believe there are obvious class connotations in names. They have them in Spain and we have them here in the United States. I can't criticize el esposo for not wanting to name his daughter something that will have her labeled in his country when I wouldn't even consider certain names for the same reasons here.

It's just a fact, that certain names reveal a person's class background. And even though we are a country obsessed with race, class matters a whole lot. Let it be known, I'd name my daughter Maya or my son Malcolm or any other name after a inspirational African and/or African American figure. I'm not afraid to go Black. My second son's name is one of the most common in Ghana, in fact. But there is a difference between race and class isn't there? And at the end of the day, we all probably name our children according to our own class condition. I mean if you live in a community where everyone is named Moet, than that's not a problem. Likewise I don't hobnob with the upper class so I would never name my kid Thurston Howell III. I believe that would be pretentious and misguided.

Names do mean something. Choosing a name for your child is probably one of the most important things you do for them before they even come into this world. So much so, a friend of mine, married to a social worker, recently told me that if you don't choose a name for your child within three days of its birth, social services may be called because you might be seen as 'not truly wanting the baby.' Yikes. Makes me think el esposo and I better get on the ball.

What do you think Meltingpot readers? What's in a name when it comes to race vs class? What kind of judgements are made based on a name? Should we care?

I'm listening.



Well Meaning White Person said...

I definitely agree that names carry connotations, and you raise interesting questions here. But I want to ask about that word "ghetto." My progressively raised White kids have diverse friends in and out of their diverse school. Recently I have heard them each use the phrase "That's so ghetto" to my absolute horror. When I admonished them, they each had the same response: "_______ says that," citing two different middle class Black friends. I argued that it was still classist and sounded worse coming out of their mouths because they were White. They rolled their eyes and said I'm obsessed with race and oversensitive. Help Meltingpot guru! What would you to say to your kids if they said that? Would your response to my kids be any different?

Anonymous said...

In my mind, "ghetto" is about class AND race. If a white person were engaged in stereotypical low-class behavior, I'd say, "That's so redneck." A black person acting out low-class stereotypes would cause me to say, "That's so ghetto."

As for names, I wouldn't name a baby girl Chaquita or Shawnaynay. Nor would I name her Billie Sue or Bobbie Jean. The point about class is the same, but the examples may differ due to race.

Wendy (Colombia Mami) said...

Redneck, in my opinion, is a subdivision of a wider term used to refer to low class whites. The broader term is "white trash". You can be poor with a standing in society and not be from the south which to me is what a redneck is.

In my personal case, my husband and I were in favor of using neo hippie names until we talked out of by various friends.

LT said...

I feel your pain. Even though I just used the term ghetto, I don't let my kids use it. Just like I don't let them swear. I think there are words that kids shouldn't use because they aren't well versed enough on the issues of race and racism, class and classism etc. They could insult someone or get called on it and admittedly, being White they could be considered racist for using the term. Not that they are, but still. Like I said, I forbid my kids from using that word and I don't think you should feel bad for doing the same.

I agree. Ghetto does have racial connotations. But just like hip hop, jazz and soul food, White people have co-opted ghetto too.

I think you are totally correct in equating white trash with ghetto. And remember when Britney Spears proudly declared herself to be from a White Trash family? Hmm...

Alicia said...

I was born in Argentina and move to the US about 15 years and my background is pretty mixed. When my only bio child was born here I settled for a English name that would sound well here and in my country and somehow blend with the American culture. But then I adopted two children form Ethiopia (and I'm on the way to adopt a third one) and went against the trend in the adoption community of changing the original name of the adopted children for a more "American" name. Most adopted parents consider that keeping the original "ethnic" name will play against the child, that he will be teased and discriminated but my opinion is that their name is part of their heritage and should be kept and the decision of changing it should be taken by the child when he/she gets older. I got into arguments with other adoptive parents, all of them white, about the subject and I always put as an example that despite his name, Barack Hussein Obama succeeded in his life and became president. So , I would say, use a name that represents something to you and your esposo, to your history and that of your husband.

Wendy (Colombia Mami) said...

Soul Food. My mom´s side of the family (white) ate what is considered "soul food". This might be a think were its a question of class/region not color... I never heard the term soul food until I left the south. In the south, from my experience, the same dishes were considered southern cooking!

Jay said...

I am a teacher and .. all I ask is whatever you name your child please spell it like sound or look up ... or write out and ask people what dose this name say and if they say some other than what you want to be than you need to fix it ... I'ev had black white and many race in between spell name crazy and than get mad when people say them worng

Wendy (Colombia Mami) said...

Alicia, We also kept our daughter's name. At 18 months, her name was a huge part of her. You also cannot change who they are, where they came from, and how they got to you. In my mind, changing her would have been trying to change/deny all of that. Adoption and being (in our case) from Colombia is not something to hid or be ashamed of.
Although at seven, my daughter will refer to herself in play as an Anglican version of her name. When I ask her if she would like to be call that, she says "no way, I am just playing". I see it as a way that she is exploring her identity. I also want her to know that she has a say in her nickname/ identity. Identity is such a complex issue.