Does having an ethnic name cause one to be seen negatively in the eyes of society?
Nineteen-year-old Keisha Lenee Austin believes so and has the firsthand experience to prove it. For years, Austin has been asking her mother for one thing and one thing only — a name change.
The Kansas City native says that as a child, and even up until she graduated from Shawnee Mission North High School last year, her name was something that she was constantly bullied over. Growing up in a predominantly white community, Keisha wanted to change her names in hopes of fitting in. So Keisha — now named Kylie — did just that. Austin recently told the Kansas City Star that she wanted to change her name because she always felt uncomfortable having a name like “Keisha” while growing up in an area that did not have a lot of black folks. She also told the paper about instances where kids would ask her if there was a “La” or a “Sha” in front of her name. Even teachers would make lame attempts at joking about her name, asking Keisha if she spelled her name with a dollar sign in it, like singer Ke$ha.
Pop culture changed things. And so did systemic racism. Studies have shown that job applicants with black-sounding names are half as likely to get a callback than those with white-sounding names and similar resumes.
Even people within the black community generalize. Last year the hit song “Cashin Out” by rapper Ca$h Out referred to Keisha not only as a kind of marijuana, but also a ho. Kendrick Lamar, one of hip-hop’s biggest names, has the song “Keisha’s Pain,” about a girl stuck in poverty, using her body to survive.
In our society, names like Abdul and Muhammad get flagged for security checks. Tran and Jesus get labeled illegal immigrants. Deonte and Laquita? People see baby mamas, criminals and affirmative action hires. Billy Bob and Sue? Hillbillies and trailer parks.
It’s wrong. But it happens. We typecast certain names. It’s disheartening the way we nurture shame, both within ourselves and others.
Keisha herself had this to say:
“It’s like they assumed that I must be a certain kind of girl,” she says. “Like, my name is Keisha so they think they know something about me, and it always felt negative.”
When her mother, Cristy Austin, found out she was pregnant with a girl, there was never a doubt what her baby’s name would be. The single mom says that she chose the name “Keisha” because to her, it represented a strong, feminine, beautiful black woman. As a white woman who would be raising a biracial daughter she wanted to instill that confidence and connectivity to the culture. After doing some research on changing names and as an early Chrsitmas gift, Cristy gave Keisha the $175 dollars needed to go through with the name change. She also had this to say:
“I saw it as a source of pride,” Cristy says. “I wanted her to have that.”
“It felt like a gift I gave to her, and she was returning it,” Cristy says. “Keisha was the only name I ever thought of, and when I talked to her in my belly, I talked to Keisha. But she’s still the same person, regardless of her name. But her happiness is what is most important to me. I love and support her, and whatever she has to do to feel good on the inside, I have to be OK with that.”
However, there were those who were not in favor of Keisha’s name change. A friend of hers suggested to her that she should keep her name and that she could be the one to show others that there is more to her than the negative stereotypes that others may initially think or feel. Keisha acknowleged that point but she felt like the name “Keisha” did not fit her.
“It’s not something I take lightly,” she says, tears flooding down her freckled face. “I put a lot of thought into it. I don’t believe you should just change your name or your face or anything like that on a whim. I didn’t want to change my name because I didn’t like it. I wanted to change my name because it didn’t feel comfortable. I don’t connect to it. I didn’t feel like myself, but I never want any girls named Keisha, or any name like that, to feel hurt or sad by it.”
A week ago, Keisha and her mother stood before a judge and “Keisha” is now “Kylie.”
*Personally, I feel as though Keisha shold have stuck with her birth name. Now I’m not judging the decision she made, but I just think that letting her Caucasian peers get to her is exactly what they wanted to do and it worked. And as far as her mother choosing the name “Keisha” because of what she thought it represented, I have to respectfully disagree. While there are Keisha’s both good and bad in this world, I do not think that it is a name that represents the African-American female community as a whole, let alone the African-American community in general. And even if that name did represents us all, why not keep it? There is nothing wrong with having what one might call an “ethnic name.” Yes, there will always be those who think they know what race you are just by looking at your name on paper. I’ve dealt with that experience myself. And there will always be those that think you are going to act a certain way or do a certain thing just because you have a certain name. But why does their opinion matter? Bullies are nothing but a bunch of insecured folk anyway! who cares what they think? Deep down inside, they probably wish that they had a more ethnic-sounding name themselves!
What do you think? Do you feel that there is a problem with having the desire to change one’s name to something that sounds less ethnic?