"I'm a young black woman with what you would call a 'ghetto'
name. I'd have no problem with my name if it weren't for the fact that
for my entire life, white people have made fun of me. I've been
made fun of by teachers, even professors in college when they call out
my name. I've had people tell me, 'You seem like such a good person,
though -- I can't believe you have such a ghetto name.' People have said
my parents made a huge mistake. I've had hiring managers tell me that
they would hire me only on the condition that I 'shorten' my name for
"My name is Laquita, so it really isn't even complicated. Anyway, I'm tired of it all.
"The problem with this is telling my family -- I have no idea
why my mother gave me this name. I feel like it's a curse. So how do I
tell her that I'm doing this without offending her? Do you think it's
the right choice, or am I 'giving up'?"
Honestly, my first reaction when I read your question was, "Go
for it. If your mother loves the name so much, tell her she can have
But treating this dilemma as if it has a quick fix strips your
question of all the complicated background that compelled you ask it.
Plus, something about that didn't really sit right with me. So I gave it
some more thought.
I guess so-called ghetto names are a subset of so-called black names
-- the ones African Americans have either created or disproportionately
embraced. Everyone's heard about how even the plainest among them, such
as "Jamal" and "Leroy," are 50 percent less likely to elicit a job-interview callback but perfectly tailored to inspire a Google arrest ad.
Plenty have studied how the multisyllabic inventions with unpredictable emphases like the ones that inspired this Key and Peele skit (watch it -- you sound like you need a laugh) relate to economic opportunity.
But your issue isn't just that your name reveals your race to people
reading your résumé. Nor is it spelled in a way that defies phonics
(Dwyane). It's not a glaringly aspirational reference (Lexus). It's not a
food (Lemonjello) or alcohol (Alize). It doesn't even include an extra
uppercase letter or punctuation!
Nope, the only thing "wrong" with "Laquita," which Our Baby Namer
says means "fifth" (citing an ever-so-vague "African" origin), in the
minds of those who are so put off by it is likely that it's "associated with lower socioeconomic status"
(pdf). My view is that the disdain isn't really for the three innocent
little syllables but, rather, for the type of black person who they
imagine would choose to put them together.
And even if your name really does correlate, as one study
showed that some do, with having parents without a high school
education, is that something to be ashamed of? Even in a country where
the racial wealth gap was "built" and the ghetto is "public policy"? Even where "started from the bottom"
or some non-Drake variation thereof is a badge of honor for so many
Americans who are self-congratulatory about their own climb to success?
If so, that doesn't make sense, and it's really sad.
I should mention that to be judgmental about monikers is just as much
a class thing as it is a race thing. (Just Google "ghetto black names"
and see who's laughing.) In fact, Kaye Whitehead,
a professor of communications and African and African-American studies
at Loyola University Maryland, traces your name's stigmatization back to
the 1990s, when black male comedians started with the punch lines about
and "Shaniquas," linking them to "someone who has a weave, someone who
has fake nails, someone who spends her money on things she shouldn't.
"Laquita is in the same ballpark," she says.
"But wait," some will argue. "People have been changing their
names to assimilate into American culture forever." No. This isn't the
same. Your name is as homegrown as it gets, and the change you're
considering would be inspired by shame, not an immigration-inspired
enthusiasm for fitting in.
That's what concerns Whitehead, who says that while "all names are
inventions," we tend to dismiss black-identified names as if they're
bestowed upon children without any thought or care. But if white people
embraced "Laquita," she says, we'd treat it with the same straight-faced
deference as "Mary."
Whitehead's suggestion: See if you can nurture an outlook that's more
"This is who I am" than "This is something that happened to me." In
other words, own it. And for those people who are critical? Here's a
handy script: "This is my name. This is how it's pronounced. I don't
insult your name, and I don't expect you to insult mine."
Of course, if that won't work, it doesn't serve anyone for you to
keep this name and suffer. I wish you could have the confidence of
little Quvenzhané "I am not Annie" Wallace or of LaceDarius "I've had it for 23 years. I can't change it ... I'm enjoying it"
Dunn. I wish you could be like Whitehead's 12-year-old son, Kofi, who,
in the face of mispronunciation ("Coffee") by teachers and classmates
alike, finally embraced his mom's mantra: "Your name doesn't define you.
You define your name."
I wish you could get that there's nothing "cursed" about "Laquita."
Instead, the curse is that people are judging you for something that you
didn't choose and -- at its very worst -- suggests that you may be less
privileged than they are.
So if you can't own your name, go ahead and make the change. I'm
dying to know what you want to be called instead. But make sure your mom
knows that what you're giving up on is dealing with all those dumb
biases, not on the name she chose for you -- whether because it means
"fifth" or she just loved the way it sounded -- expecting, reasonably,
that the world would let you live with it in peace.