"Searching for Shaniqua" article on documentary about names, race, class, and stereotypes

Phil Branch has a new documentary looking at real people with names that have strong ethnic markers as African Americans (mainly) and how it affects their everyday lives. It includes a lawyer named Shaniqua.

The last section of the article is of interest to me, in that it basically spells out the lack of privilege and freedom in naming for people of color. I'm surprised they didn't mention the story of the that Texas guy who finally got job interviews by changing his first name from Jose to Joe. Think of these stories the next time you see a post where someone wants to honor and signify their ancestry with an Irish or Italian or Nordic name and does so without any worry that their child will be stigmatized for having a name that indicates his or her ethnicity. 


Naming is a political act for people of color. Consider the history of American racism, which, during slavery, forbade black and brown people from keeping their own family names. Naming, therefore, for people of color, is always political. "At one time, naming children something other than Phill, James, Kim, etc. was an act of resistance for many black parents," Branch contended. "They were asserting their agency."

Selecting a name for a black or brown child is a complex process for most parents. "There almost seems to be a conscious effort by middle-class black parents to make sure their kids are treated with whatever respect their pedigree affords," Branch said. For the politically-conscious parent, the aim is to find the perfect name that both reflects a deliberate break from America's racist past while not contributing to the ostracizing of the child by giving them a "ratchet name." If social mobility is the objective, Branch explains, "there's also more of an understanding of and compliance with white cultural norms. Considering what parents know about the obstacles their kids may face, I understand why naming is done with an eye toward a desired future."

This "desired future" is a challenge for people with names that are loaded with cultural meaning. Social mobility is very much tied to a person's name, as Benjamin M. Friedman noted in a piece at the Atlantic. But Branch's project expands the idea that a surname is not all that matters — first names matter, too. The bind for many people of color who want to avoid Anglophile names is tantamount to a catch-22 of how to have a name that isn't already prescribed by racist stereotypes. 

But is there a way to remove the cultural meaning from a name? This may, frankly, be an impossible task. But Branch's hope is that this project will make people check themselves and their assumptions — and this may be the key to eradicating stereotypes of names.


February 21, 2015 10:41 PM

Thanks for the link to that article -- the documentary looks really interesting. 

February 22, 2015 5:06 PM

Ditto, Laura V!

I was really interested when freakonomics (in their naming podcast) cited the research that suggests that there is a resume callback bias associated with traditionally-African-American names, but also cited that there wasn't a corresponding income difference between those with the most AA-associated names versus those with the least AA-associated names. I think that is probably due to the fact that if people hiring are biased against a name like Shaniqua, then there might be a corresponding bias if the Elizabeth (or Fiona or whatever) who shows up for the interview turns out to be black... which is even more depressing.


February 22, 2015 8:11 PM

Yep, and such findings are buttressed in the academic world, after the 2014 study testing if professors would respond at all to different students who emailed asking for a meeting, and whether the profs said yes or no to the meeting. The researchers sent the exact same words, only changing the names. The names? Brad Anderson, Meredith Roberts, Lamar Washington, LaToya Brown, Juanita Martinez, Deepak Patel, Sonali Desai, Chang Wong, Mei Chen. Obviously chosen to trip off ideas about gender and ethnicity. Brad got the most responses by far, and the most Yeses.


February 25, 2015 5:41 PM

Yah! I like this.

May 23, 2015 2:44 PM

I´ve noticed this less in the US than in my native Britain. In the UK, names are STRONGLY linked to class, names like Kayden, Jayden, and pretty much any hyphenated first names are usually considered extremely lower class, we would also consider irregular spellings like Jayme instead of Jaime to be tagged as lower class. Upper class and Upper middle class names are distinct in the UK, names such as Jonty, Quentin, Archie, Tarquin, Henry, Jasper, Margo etc.. although it is more common to see upper class children given 1 or 2 middle names.  I have a hispanic surname, which in the UK never caused me issue, but I have noticed that it is "tagged" or stereotyped here in the USA....