What's In A Name? Everything.
In the 1960’s, Blacks and Whites typically chose similar names for their children. My grandparents, James and Evelyn, as well as my parents Harold and Stella, were able to maneuver their way with common names. By the 1970’s, those patterns began to change and more distinctive names began to emerge. This was a result of more racially-exclusive neighborhoods, as well as the rise of a Black power movement. Black people wanted their own identity; a representation of how they perceived themselves and their children.
Vividly, I can remember sitting at the dining room table with my mother, with a Big Red Chief Tablet and No. 2 pencil, writing my 9-letter name over and over. Careful to stay within the lines, my mother praised my good penmanship.
It wasn’t until I started school that I realized how challenging my name was to others. Aside from mispronouncing it, kids made fun of it. As an adult, people tell me what they are going to call me – in order to make it easier for them. Or, the infamous question “Do you have a nickname?” In the past, I have allowed people to call me variations of my name or even my initials.
We know now that names are used as weapons to ignite racism, classism, sexism, and overall discourse.
Over the weekend, Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia resorted to racist jokes about Sen. Kamala Harris’s name while warming up the crowd at Donald Trump’s campaign rally.
“Ka-MA-la, KA-ma-la, Kamala-mala-mala. I don’t know, whatever,” Perdue said.
Kamala (pronounced “comma-la”) means ‘lotus flower’ which is a symbol of significance in Indian culture. Jokes about her name ― and even the inconsiderate mispronunciation of it ― are a lazy way to paint her as an outsider. Less than. A joke.
Trump has similarly mocked her name.
“You know who’s further left than Crazy Bernie? Kamala. Kamala. Kamala,” he said at a rally last month, mispronouncing her name and stretching out each syllable.
A spokesperson for Sen. Perdue stated that he wasn’t making fun of her name. “Senator Perdue simply mispronounced Senator Harris’ name, and he didn’t mean anything by it.”
We don’t buy it.
So, let’s just change Oprah to Olive, and Beyoncé to Beth. If we do that, we lose all of the gloriousness that comes with these women being identifiable only by their first name. We lose all of the magic that went into making them who they are.
At some point, the world has to embrace and normalize atypical names. For me, it began by fully and unapologetically embracing it myself. I no longer shorten it. I don’t allow variations of it. I no longer give the Starbucks barista my initials or middle name – I insist on the correct spelling and pronunciation. And no, you cannot call me by my childhood nickname at work. It is all important and matters.