The Privilege of Having Americanized Names

There is – or was a discussion on Abagond’s blog about American racism against blacks. The topic veered into subject regarding finding employment and names. One commenter brought up how certain names will not be given as many callbacks as those with typical names. The commenter would call the former names like ‘Jamal, Bubba, Daisy Mae and LaKeisha ghetto and trailer park names. It’s hard not to conclude that this person went there (and you know where), but I digress.

This got me to think about the advantage of having Americanized names in America. Names like Johnathan or Amber are privileged names because:

1. They are common in America.

2. They are white-sounding, Americanized names.

3. They are easy to pronounce to most Americans.

4. They are neutral in terms of class.

5. Products, like novelty license plates you find at gift shops, will have Americanized names already molded.

6. More likely to have a job interview or find the place you want to live in.

The commenter makes the argument that ‘ghetto’ and ‘trailer park’ names sound ridiculous and indicate an ignorant family background. Thus, Deshawn and Shaniqua are not qualified for whatever position they’ve applied for.  The basic response is that all who live in America must conform to American standards or else they deserve to be left out of the mainstream. Institutional racism and classism abounds.

The irony of it all is that the origins of African American names are traced back to that awful period in history known as slavery. Americanized names were forced upon us through brutal methods. African slaves accepted their new names without any choice to survive.

Still, there are people who have a problem with African American names. As such they are referred to as ‘ghetto’ names and are met with disdain by many people, including some African Americans. Names with a ‘awn’ or ‘kw’ sound, for instance, are assumed to have come from no-good, ignorant black parents, a demeaning stereotype about black parents supported by the media.

To a certain extent, Foreign names are met with similar adversities. Some are ridiculed or hated such as the name Muhammed, a name typically associated with Islam, a religion feared and hated by many Americans. Asian and Latino names are usually made fun of by mainstream American, especially in the entertainment media. Native American names are parodied in American film history. And certain Southern white names like Earl or Bubba gives the assumption that those who have those names are typical among poor, country, ignorant whites known by some as ‘white trash’.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is a famous line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It means that a thing or person is still that thing or person no matter what. People may think your name is ridiculous, but you are still a person with a heart, mind and soul and should still be treated as such.

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22 thoughts on “The Privilege of Having Americanized Names

  1. Thanks for bringing this topic and for doing it succinctly and clear. There is no denying that Americanized names provide advantages to anybody living here. Those people who persist in being creative by giving their kids uncommon or stigmatized names are truly brave. The same with those who keep them and resist modifying them. For reasons I cannot explain, my parents gave me both types of names. This seems like a practical compromise, which I have continued with my own kids. I am not sure what would that mean for others, but for me it reflects a desire to keep our non-mainstream identity while recognizing that we live in a society that would penalize you for being different (and we don’t come with much merits that could serve us as a cushion).

    Nevertheless, the points you highlights reveal the powerful efficacy of the hegemonic soft-power which subtly draws people in line, into conformity in what would seem as voluntarily. Self-policing is the aim of every effective system of control, and deviations as simply having a stigmatized name would be strongly penalized. I would be interested in learning about a study that would quantify the social, political and economic loses of having a non-americanized name.

    1. I think above all else, people have the right to name their kids whatever they want. Some names may be unusual to some people, but in the end, a human life was given that name. It’s part of who they are, and it’s up to that individual if they want to keep it or change it. Unfortunately, if it’s outside the social norms, it could produce some barriers that he or she has to cross.

  2. The man who hold the highest position in the land is judged by his name. When Barack Obama fist came on the scene it sent white people into fits of vile name calling. Referring to him as Osama. This I heard in my place of employment among certain co-workers. The name Barack Hussein Obama led whites to be suspicious and they knew nothing about him. Yes elitism and not only racism but classism about in America. It dosen’t matter that one has an ivy leaguge education or what one has accomplished if something doesn’t fit into what white America doesn’t perceive to be American or if it’s too exotic it is to be held under suspicion.

  3. And you know with oscar awards coming up the commenters on entertainment blogs are tripping about the young actress from Beast of The Southern Wild. Quvenzhane’ Wallis. But the young lady has a website to educate people about the meaning and correct spelling of her name.

  4. I don`t think I agree with this at all, but it all comes from perspective. In my perspective, names like Muhamid are much more likely to make people wary. Sure, Le-a (pronounced Ledasha) may earn a few laughs, but some people are downright terrified of ‘terrorist sounding’ names, even of perfectly innocent people that are using traditional cultural names. Going back to the ‘educated’ sound of names, I think that may be why many immigrants choose ‘local’ names when moving, as seen by the twenty Asian ancestry ‘Anna’s I know. In fact, when you look at official documents, you will find more likely names such as Yi, but some choose to blend. I think the choice to blend is not inheritantly only for the educated, but it may be done so that merit, more than the sound of one`s name, stands out.

    1. I agree that some immigrants choose to have their names changed to suit the American culture. Still, Americans are comfortable with Americanism which includes names. Anything outside of that paradigm will likely get strange looks from the mainstream culture.

      1. Oh, yes, strange looks. I`m just not sure it is so extreme that it prevents jobs, but then I live in a very liberal and urban area, so I may not have a firm grasp of the situation.

    2. When I was in high school, I knew many Vietnamese girls and at least one guy who had an “American” name in addition to their Vietnamese given name. I knew that once they had children that they would most likely give them American names. There was a White female classmate that ignorantly said, “They get White names.” when someone questioned the changing of names by said people. Even govenor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal changed his name from Piyush, which I believe is still his legal name and Nikki Haley whose given name is Namrata. It is all about assimilation in many cases.

      1. It’s interesting to note that when a POC has an “American” name rather than a non-ethnic sounding name, he/she is accused of not being proud of themselves, their culture. I have heard some white people say this. Idiotic, but true.

  5. I would add though; this is slowly changing…

    Names like Keisha and LaShonda appear as characters in novels now–like mainstream novels by Zadie Smith and Sharon Draper that are taught in high school and college English classes–so these names are shifting to be associated with average, girl-next-door Black women who are articulate and desirable to their male counterparts…as the women who have these names in the books are not what is traditionally associated with Keisha or LaShonda…

  6. Oh and btw… i have known a few white and Asian Keisha’s or Teisha’s and white LaTisha’s…lol

    Depending on the culture, they mean different things. I personally prefer the meaning “favorite one” for Keisha :-).

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