"Going girl" as racial phenomenon

One of the mayoral candidates in NYC this year is named Karmen M. Smith. Contrary to my expectations, Mr. Smith was... well, a mister. Karmen as a boys' name is so rare that it only shows up on the SSA data once. Carmen in general is one of those ostensibly unisex names that's almost unheard of on men, like Ashley or Courtney or Vivian. Except, I know men named Ashley and Courtney and Vivian, and like Karmen Smith, all of them are black.

Lurking on baby name websites, I see a lot of anxiety over whether name X is too feminine for a baby boy, but I'm starting to think this is exclusively a concern among white parents. Am I leaping to conclusions based on having too little data? How would you even go about proving this? And if I am right, why?


August 30, 2017 3:27 PM

Ashley Zukerman, actor born in the US, grew up in Australia, not female, not black

By EVie
August 30, 2017 7:33 PM

Hard to say without more data, though it would be interesting if true. I feel pretty confident saying that non-white ethnic groups have their fair share of neuroses surrounding masculinity (though whites have plenty), but how that plays out in the realm of naming, I'm not sure. I know NYC does publish some statistics on name popularity by race, but I don't know if you can get the full data set. You could also look at the full state data from the SSA--if your hypothesis is right, you would expect to see higher rates of boys named Ashley in states with higher black populations. You'd need to do some real statistical analysis to actually compare the rates, though.

It does strike me that surname-names on girls is more of a white practice than otherwise. It has roots in the Southern practice of calling girls by family names in the middle spot, which in of itself strikes me as having racial undertones, because how many of those names are *not* Anglo/Celtic in origin, with maybe an occasional French thrown in? Do these names function as subtle in-group signifiers, i.e. "Look, my other ancestors were Anglo as well, I am bona fide Anglo through and through"? Interesting then to think through the implications of people choosing these names when they're not on the family tree and don't actually match the heritage of the family... is it a desire (conscious or unconscious) to project an image of whiteness, and specifically an Anglo-Saxon kind of whiteness? To try to "pass", as it were?

Or I could be over-thinking it...

August 31, 2017 12:28 PM

I think NYC stopped publishing that data, but the old data should still be available.

September 1, 2017 5:01 PM

I'm observing NYC's baby name data. The threshold for publishing name data seems to be 10, which makes this a little awkward.

Ashley is mostly popular among Hispanic girls, and doesn't even chart for boys. Ditto Carmen (duh), but also ditto Leslie, of all names. Courtney doesn't appear once in the past five years.

Jordan is interesting: for boys, the name is overwhelmingly more popular among Black and Hispanic parents; the name only sees non-sporadic use on baby girls among white parents, where it's half as popular as it is on white boys. Then again, this isn't counting kre8iv variant spellings.

I don't think this dataset is going to prove fruitful for proving or disproving my theory, unfortunately.

September 1, 2017 7:46 PM

I had a whole theory on non-WASPy people from lower class origins taking on names like Leslie, Jordan, Courtney, etc. as a sort of class status trickle-down effect, and then, a few decades later, parents of girls feeling like they could do the same thing with those names. 

But then I googled Karmen Smith. He looks like he's in his 30s or 40s, and wouldn't fit the same demographic of the other men I've known with formerly-male names (all of whom are from a non-WASP ethnic background and aged between 60-90 now). Also, Carmen isn't a posh British surname type of name at all, so there's no trickling down to be done there, really. Not to mention that Carmen is a name like Dolores or Consuelo which honors the Virgin Mary. It has a pretty firm history as a female name. So my theory, while maybe reasonable for someone like the actor Courtney B. Vance, doesn't apply to Karmen Smith.

October 1, 2017 4:22 PM

Recently met a white teenage male Addison. Interesting choice, seeing how many female Addisons/Addies are in our area, but respectable.