What Makes A Name ‘Ghetto’?

If you don’t like a name, don’t give it to your child. But don’t disparage another parent for choosing a name simply because you don’t understand it.

What makes a name “ghetto”? Is it the name itself, the person receiving the name, or is the threshold based on the person giving the name? Take, for example, Shaniqua, Tyrone, LaKeisha, Darius, LaShawn, and Jamal. What, if anything, makes those names different from Rebecca, Peter, Katie, Bobby, Hannah, and Connor?

One thing: blackness.

Anti-blackness is now, and always has been, real. And unfortunately, policies and practices continuously allow it to withstand. Whether we are examining the rigid conditions placed on black women’s hairstyles in the military, or highlighting policies related to race but clouded with race-neutral language to appear fair, it is clear that erasure of black culture is occurring.

Each day, black people are denigrated for allegedly “making up names.” Despite all names being technically made up, society has ultimately decided which ones receive a seal of professional approval. And through this approval process, I have noticed that black people often receive negative treatment for others failing to understand our cultural identity and expression. And sometimes, this lack of comprehension can make us feel bad for birth-given names, cultural or otherwise.

In a recent interview, Uzo Aduba, (Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren of “Orange is the New Black”) explained her name. She expressed

“My family is from Nigeria, and my full name is ‘Uzoamaka,’ which means ‘The road is good.’ Quick lesson: My tribe is Igbo, and you name your kid something that tells your history and hopefully predicts your future. So anyway, in grade school, because my last name started with an A, I was the first in roll call, and nobody ever knew how to pronounce it. So I went home and asked my mother if I could be called ‘Zoe.’ I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Nobody can pronounce it.’ Without missing a beat, she said, ‘If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.’”

Aduba’s quote illustrates how mainstream society can alter our perceptions, even of ourselves. Unfortunately, it is connected to how others view us—and is usually based on the respectable way in which mainstream society analyzes, interrogates, and appropriates us, and our experiences.

In the black community, it’s easy to pretend that selecting names is a “how quickly can I get my child a job” contest. This is particularly true when listening to stories like the one last year where a hiring manager admitted to discriminating based on “African sounding” names like “Tamisha” and other “tribal names.”

Still, after hearing the discussion of “ghetto” names, it’s hard not to recognize that selecting names that don’t “sound black” have everything to do with respectability politics. And if even some say it has to do with professionalism, it is clear that this type of professionalism is still rooted in the acceptance by a mainstream society that was never designed—intentionally so—to accept or understand our cultural dynamics.

The other day on Twitter, I debated the concept of denigrating the black community for selecting names that people, including those in the black community, fail to understand, which are typically a result of culture, ingenuity, and creativity.

As we know, various cultures are not accepted by everyone as real and authentic. And frankly, it is not the job of any black person to explain the condescending nature of referring to names as “ghetto.” Luckily, most of the responses on Twitter related to the black community for name choices were affirming:

However, some responses questioned what names mean, and effectively, how “other” (non-black) sounding names escape criticism because they actually mean something. Others even accused black people of being “irresponsible” and “gross.”

And . . .

Throw names together? Is that what black people and our names have been deduced to? What separates a good reason for selecting the name of a child versus a bad one?

It is one thing to not select a certain name for your child because you don’t think it holds value. It’s quite a different thing to denigrate the black community because of the personal refusal to understand various cultural and creative elements. In spite of this, people will continue to justify reasons for being hyper-critical of black names, whatever that means to you, without admitting that at the core is anti-blackness.

Choosing a name based on how fast mainstream society will accept them and how quickly they will get a job is all based on respectability politics. And like many drugs, vying for respectability can become deadly. So deadly, in fact, that it has people thinking social conditioning has nothing to do with our thought processes.

When considering names, it is best to understand that some will have a particular meaning, some are based on familial experiences, and some are generational. But above all, no reason is better than another.

This is pretty simple: If a name is cringe-worthy, don’t select if for your child. But there is absolutely no reason to disparage a parent for choosing a particular name for their child simply because you fail to understand it.

Preston Mitchum is a regular contributor to Role Reboot. He is a civil rights advocate and legal writing professor in Washington, DC. Preston has written for The Atlantic, theGrio, Huffington Post, Ebony.com, and Think Progress. Follow him on Twitter here.

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