Growing Up “Keisha” in a World of Ashleys and Joshes

by Keisha F. In 7th grade, I pleaded with my mother to let me change my name to one less “black.” I didn’t use those words exactly, but I’...

by Keisha F.

In 7th grade, I pleaded with my mother to let me change my name to one less “black.” I didn’t use those words exactly, but I’d gleaned by then that, just like my dark skin, my name was considered inferior somehow. We’d just moved to Texas from Georgia where I’d experienced for the first time the anguish and confusion of being the only black girl in my “gifted and talented” classes full of white kids. I was in the midst of my racial identity crisis.

My mom took me and my sister to an enrollment assessment a few weeks before the school year began. As she checked boxes on forms and took notes, the counselor asked me, “Do you have a nickname you’d like to go by?”
Seeing this as an opportunity to create a new identity from the start, my eyes danced as I answered: “Yes! My nickname is Amy.”

She gave me a curious look, no doubt wondering how you get “Amy” from “Keisha,” then glanced at my mom, who pursed her lips and said firmly, “She doesn’t have a nickname. It’s just Keisha.”

I folded my arms across my chest, slid down in my chair and pouted. There went my chance to have a wonderful life as a black Amy. Keisha it would be. Me and my “black” name. Why had my parents saddled me with this glaringly “ethnic” moniker? My three sisters all have French names!

Recently on the talk show that I hope is in its ninth life aka The View, co-host Raven- “I am from every continent in Africa, except for one” Symoné spouted:


Just to bring it back, can we take back “racist” and say “discriminatory,” because I think that’s a better word. And I am very discriminatory against words like the ones that they were saying in the video. I’m not about to hire you if your name is Watermelondrea. It’s just not going to happen. I’m not going to hire you.
Just to bring it back, can we take back “racist” and say “discriminatory,” because I think that’s a better word. And I am very discriminatory against words like the ones that they were saying in the video. I’m not about to hire you if your name is Watermelondrea. It’s just not going to happen. I’m not going to hire you.

Raven, dear badly needing to have your mind decolonized Raven, have you ever wondered why we live in a world where words like “white” and “light” connote purity, but “black” and “dark” signify evil? A world where the “black” people have been continually subjugated merely for existing with “dark” skin? The same world in which names popular among “black” people, like Sheniqua, LaShonda, Terrell or DeAndre are derided, but names popular with the “white” people such as Susan, Becky, Josh and Tanner are respected?

As mentioned in this excellent piece from Gadfly on the Wall, black American names are often influenced by several factors including religious, historical, political, cultural and just plain old creative (and last I checked, we laud creativity is laudable).

My own name is believed to derive from the biblical name “Keziah.” I’m eternally grateful to my parents for refusing to let me discard my name. A name which I’ve grown to love and wouldn’t change for anything.

“Keisha” reached its height of popularity in the mid-1970s | source

I’ve seen the statistics, I’ve read Freakonomics and I know some people discriminate against those of us with so-called “black” (or pejoratively: “ghetto”) names because of their prejudices. What else is new? If it’s not my skin color that’s too dark, it’s my hair that’s too nappy or unprofessional, my nose is too wide, or my name that’s too black.

I learned a while ago to stop trying to change myself to fit European standards in search of acceptance. I like “Keisha.” What Keisha is, is what I make of it. My name doesn’t hold me back. You know what holds people back? Trying to be someone they’re not, to please and gain approval from others.

I am not interested in befriending, spending time around, nor working with people who would dismiss me without knowing me solely due to my name – which I didn’t even have any involvement in selecting. You become who you surround yourself with and I’ll pass on ignorance.

When I did the Jesse Lee Peterson show earlier this year, toward the end of the show, a white man who called in asked me to repeat my name. When I did, he replied with a snide chuckle, “Keisha? Oh that’s a good one” and then proceeded to try to put me in my place. I don’t need approval from the likes of him. He can keep his nose in the air. The molecules he’s breathing must smell foul with the stench of ignorance.

Again: there is nothing inherently wrong with being “black.” It’s a skin color. The meaning is human-infused. Likewise, there’s nothing inherently wrong about black culture. Our view of blackness is influenced by white supremacy which needs anti-blackness to survive.
For Raven’s sake, I hope she learns from this. There are people who will judge her for being a black lesbian with a shocking-pink birdhawk, dating a woman named AzMarie, but I will only be judging her for the ridiculous words that continue to spew from her mouth.

To the Keishas, Jamals, LaKeishas, Marquis’, Sheniquas, Tyrells, Ebonys, Darius’, Beyonces, Maliks and yes, Watermelondreas, embrace your name. Never let anyone make you feel you’re less than for being given the name you have.

Photo: Shutterstock


You can find Keisha's writing at The Girl Next Door is Black where she posts thought-provoking essays and stories on culture, society, and travel from the perspective of a late GenXer/early Millennial. She currently lives in San Francisco, CA where she's navigating the challenges of high rent and being one of a few black people left in a city. 

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