Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Politics of Naming: Thomas Made it to Yale, I Wonder Where Trevon Ended Up?

Nicholas got into Yale University. Did Deshawn make it to Yale too?

It would seem that the authors of Freakonomics have spawned a cottage industry.

Names are not destiny. But, they certainly tell us a great deal about social capital and community norms.

Elites have their own subculture and exclusive social networks. In this world there are significant barriers to entry, very specific local norms, and insider knowledge that is denied to those not in the clique.

The poor live in a parallel world. They too have their own very narrow social networks (many poor folks are poor precisely because all they know are other poor people), subcultural norms, and types of insider knowledge as well.

The differences between these two worlds--beyond material resources--is that rich folks and other elites have cultural capital that is portable beyond a three square block area in normal society. Poor folks, the ghetto underclass in particular, have cultural capital that has no real use outside of a very narrow world, one which sadly, most never escape.

There is an irony there: the dream merchants and culture industry sells "ghetto authenticity" as a product, but most of the folks who are living vicarious through "slumming," and embodying a quasi-hip hop ghetto authenticity habitus as updated white negroes, would not want to be poor in real life.

Ghetto couture is "fun" because you can always take it off.

As Gawker and the Guardian suggest, there are certain names which open doors and other names which close them. I have a "boring" name. I thank my parents for that fact. But, my parents, as working class folks, did not have the social or economic capital to indulge a trendy name common to the blue blood crowd because the resources were not present to shield me from how names can impact life chances.

Yes, a name is most certainly a "proxy variable." Nevertheless, it can tell you a great deal about one's community of origin and the resources available to your parents and family (or their knowledge of how to game the system in pursuit of upward mobility).

Names like Samuel, Matthew, Margaret, and Sophia are among the most popular names at Yale. The black bourgeoisie has its own naming conventions as well. I wonder what the most popular names are at Howard? Moving lower down the prestige chain among HBCUs, I wonder what names dominate the rosters of schools such as Stillman or Shaw?


Shady Grady said...

Eh,,I'm not sure this is really the right question to ask. I'm not as rich I'd like to be (ha-ha) but I'm more successful than most and I have a name that is defiantly non-European.

I'm not sure whether names are showing causality or correlation. My experience has been that it doesn't really matter that much if your name is Holden Andrews Bixby III or De'shaun Luther Jefferson once people know you're black you're going to be treated a certain way. Period.

Also in my field I have reason to work with numerous people from South and East Asia whose names are often at least as "exotic" or initially hard to pronounce as any "ghetto" name. But that doesn't seem to prevent them from doing exceedingly well in both corporate and academic America. So I think something else is going on.

Cain S. LaTrans said...

My son's mother created his first name, out of thin air. I wanted to name him Alexander Tecumseh -She rejected Tecumseh, and left Alexander - which he now goes by...

A name is both a cloak, and a destiny - My folk have public names and hidden names - a tradition that goes back to Ireland, and Native America.

One who knows your true name has control over you. Only the most trusted can know it.

chauncey devega said...

Read much Harry Dresden do you?

chauncey devega said...

In a perfect world it would not matter. In our world there is mounting empirical evidence that "black" names are a real liability in the labor market.

chixie1023 said...

This speaks volumes about the racist players in the labor market more than black people's cultural expressions in naming our children. The burden of change should be on the discriminators.

chauncey devega said...

I live in the world as it is not as it should be.

chixie1023 said...

I live in the same world as you. There are things that I accept and things that must change, whether I see it in my lifetime or not. I'd imagine a girl named Ebony, for example, would be discriminated against just as much as a girl named Lexus (is that hot mess enough for you?). What about surnames? You may be named Penelope but, if the last name is Johnson or Washington, they can get you on that too. What about your city of residence? Compton might get you tossed while, Malibu may get you a second look.

In general, I don't look down on people and I certainly don't have a standard measuring stick of what's black and what's not. Sure there are undesirable trends within our culture, but you have to be careful of not becoming an offshoot of the very destructive white gaze you so often speak of.

chauncey devega said...

I hear you. But I pick my fights. With all of the structural and personal challenges facing black and brown folks, the working class, and the poor, fighting the fight so that Shaniqualexusiamgonnakissmeagirl3! is not "discriminated" against in the job process is not where I want to spend my energy.

You however can fight that great fight :)

Moreover, those names have nothing to do with "black culture" at least in our best since. They are the names that children having children make up to feel special.

chixie1023 said...

"You however can fight that great fight :)"

I'm happy to fight the fight against racism and discrimination.

I hope you do get a list of names from the colleges you mentioned and revisit this topic. I would be interested in the commentary you'd have about the results.

chauncey devega said...

If someone does the leg work and sends in the info in such a manner that it can be confirmed I will gladly post it.

Shady Grady said...

"Black skin" is a real liability in the labor market.

One person may be named Shaniqua Johnson and the other person may be named Rajathsan Gopalakrishan. Chances are if they are both up for the same IT job Shaniqua's resume will be tossed. But even if Shaniqua uses her middle name of Megyn and avoids the unseen rejection, as soon as the hiring team sees her they will make assumptions, and usually not good ones.

So, I think black people might as well use whatever names are of meaning to them. Discrimination will occur anyway.

Wavenstein said...

My name is Randall and I still can't get a decent job no matter how qualified I am for it. I don't trust those race check boxes that come at the end of an application. I'm going to try checking the refuse to answer box instead of the African American box. It hurts my soul to do that but I want to see if it makes a difference.

chauncey devega said...

Check white and dare them to tell you otherwise. There are white college students checking off "African American" now in order to game the system.

BostonAfroRican said...

Screw freakonomics. According to them, my greatest aspiration in life should be to be a stripper, since my name is Brandi. Oh yeah, because as a black girl named Brandi, I've NEEEEVER heard that lameness. I personally like my first name, except when people assume I'm a whore and or stripper, but its my hispanic last name that does me in every time. It just goes to show, just because you have a "proper, American" first name, you can still be discriminiated against because of your last name.