On a recent segment of "The View," host Raven-Symoné stated that she would not hire someone named "Watermelondrea." Critics immediately blasted her for being a black woman with a unique name who is openly biased against other black people with nontraditional monikers.
But she's hardly in the minority when it comes to discriminating against people with so-called "ghetto" names. The only difference between Raven-Symoné and those of us without talk shows is that her platform allows her to reach millions of people. The rest of us deride others on a smaller scale, though our words can have major impact.
Consider the teacher who reads a class roster and asks students, "Is this a made up name?" Or the new acquaintance who expresses surprise after introductions: "You don't seem like you're from the 'hood." Or the friend who dubs a rude woman "a 'Shaniqua'"
Numerous studies have examined name bias. A recently released UCLA study reported that, among other things, men with black-sounding names were perceived as larger and more violent. And social psychologists have examined how black-sounding names negatively impact employment opportunities.
However, what isn't commonly discussed is that this bias also happens internally within African-American communities. Raven-Symoné's admission, while ugly, gives us an opportunity to engage in an important dialogue.
I began thinking about the implications of naming and my own biases years ago. I had a friend who worked as a substitute teacher and who would on occasion tell me her student's names. On one particular day, she told a story of how she read a name and froze. She described trying to let her brain process it fully before speaking. The girl's name was, essentially, "CashMoney," with an added "ah" at the end. I was admittedly stunned. That story sparked an idea that I eventually turned into a documentary about black names entitled, "Searching for Shaniqua."
To me, the name Shaniqua represents the complexity of what is problematic about name bias. At this point, Shaniqua is actually a fairly common name. There are lawyers, grandmothers, teachers, news anchors, doctors and many other professional women named Shaniqua. Still, the name is loaded with baggage. It is so powerful that it can be used as a slur. Recently, for example, a contestant on the reality show "Big Brother" was visibly upset and cried after being called a "Shaniqua" by a white contestant. Shaniqua is a real name. It should not be able to be used as descriptor that can bring about tears.
The interracial bias is no less problematic. One of my documentary subjects, Chinneaqua, spoke about her experience of being a waitress and not wanting black customers to know her name, because they would sometimes become hostile. Another subject talked about men she's dated feeling a need to explain to their parents that "yes, her name is Shaniqua, but she's different."
Beyond the people in the documentary, which we're set to finish editing next month, I've known other people Raven-Symoné probably wouldn't hire. I'm a foster parent, and last year I found myself being a dad to two beautiful little girls with names you wouldn't find in any baby book. Years of reading research and interviewing people about their names had taught me what kinds negativity the girls potentially had in store. All of a sudden, I found myself becoming a name advocate. I needed people to say their full names — correctly. We all deserve at least that much respect. This problem isn't just about resumes. It's about the everyday lives of real people, big and small.
The issue is complicated, much like hair texture, skin complexion and African-American vernacular usage within diverse black communities. And all are divisive remnants of our troubled American history.
Instead of shutting Raven-Symoné down as a self-hating outlier, let's be honest about how common her views are. What she said was "so Raven," but it is also "so us" too.
Phill Branch (www.phillbranch.com) is a writer, educator and lecturer completing work on a documentary about black names, entitled "Searching for Shaniqua." Twitter: @phillbranch; email: email@example.com.