What’s in a name? Ethnicity or ego?

by | Oct 11, 2015 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

This past week on “The View,” a TV host named Raven-Symoné made headlines when she said she wouldn’t hire anyone with a name that sounded too black.

As an example, she gave “Watermelondrea.”

This became news because, for one thing, Symoné is African American. Also, Watermelondrea is not, as near as research can tell, an actual name.

Worrying too much about what Raven-Symoné thinks is a waste of time. But Symoné, a former child star of “The Cosby Show,” touched a nerve with her comments, because there are many names today that certain people find “too black.” Ironically, Symoné’s TV mentor and costar was one of them. Bill Cosby once made headlines himself by chiding black parents in a speech, saying “we are not Africans” and criticizing those who named their kids “Shaniqua, Taliqua and Mohammed and all of that crap.”

As inflammatory and discriminatory as Symoné’s comments are, she is hardly alone. When job applications bear easily identified African-American names, some of them will be tossed aside by employers with unfounded worries about “those kind of people.”

But it’s not just black names.

The evils of prejudice

Be real. If a job application comes in with the first name Hussein, do you think it’s likely to get a fair shake? How about Ibrahim? How about Nasser or Ali or Osama?

Likewise, if an employer isn’t crazy about Indian Americans, where do you think the applications of Sameer, Aarav, Krishna or Ishaan are going?

Don’t like Jews? Say bye-bye to the applications of Shalom or anyone whose last name is Goldberg.

Got a problem with Italians? Too many vowels may be a giveaway. Don’t want to hire Germans? Stay away from Muller and Schmidt.

The fact is, our names often precede us, from applications to driver’s licenses to airplane tickets. People checking such things will form whatever shortsighted opinions they want. When you figure out how to change that, let me know. We can bottle it and wipe out prejudice altogether.

Meanwhile, this hasn’t stopped Americans from gravitating to the farthest reaches of moniker-hood. The website babycenter.com ran a survey in which 52% of American parents said they liked giving their child an unusual name, a jump from 43% the previous year.

In other words, it may not be about the ethnicity. It may be about the ego.

The need for attention

From 1915 to 1946, the most popular girl’s name in the U.S. never changed. Mary. Children of a Mary didn’t mind passing the name to their daughters. It didn’t hurt their identity. It didn’t make them feel less special.

But in the past six years, according to the Social Security Administration, the most popular name for girls has changed three times: Isabella, Sophia and Emma. And last year, the most popular names for boys were Noah, Liam, Mason and Jacob.

And these are the common ones. BabyCenter also asked people to send in unusual names, and at least three families claimed authorship of the following: Agape, Cheska, Holiday, Kutty, Heavenleigh, Elowen, Juju and Zeppelin. (I’m not sure if Zeppelin refers to the rock band or the airship that burned up. Either way, I’d be ticked off.)

The point is many kids’ names today have more to do with parents’ desire to be different. They may not admit it. But it’s true. The same way our kids are the most-indulged in history when it comes to after-school activities, playdates, sense of self-worth or lack of criticism.

So is it racist to discriminate on the basis of a name? It can be. More importantly, it’s foolish. For one thing, you are blaming the child for the parents’ actions. It’s not Shaniqua’s fault, nor Agape’s, nor Kutty’s, nor Juju’s.

Besides, the applicant named John may be far more of the things you worried about than the one with 32 letters in his name.

And by the way, two of the most popular Americans today are named LeBron and Beyoncé. So apparently accomplishment still matters.

The old Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue” told the tale of an absent father who named his son Sue to toughen him for life without a dad. I’m not sure today’s names are as nobly purposed. I do know that kids inevitably will get picked on for any strange moniker.

Someone named Raven-Symoné should know that, too. But then, her character on the Cosby show was named Olivia, which, as of last year, was the second-most popular baby name for girls in the country.

Watch out, Watermelondrea. Your day may come.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Tickets are on sale for the Nov. 8 charity launch at the Fox Theatre of his latest novel, “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto.” Tickets are $50, include an autographed book and are available at ticketmaster.com, Fox Theatre, Joe Louis Arena, Hockeytown Authentics and 800-745-3000.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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