From Keisha to Kylie: Are Black Women's Names Tools of Empowerment or Confinement?

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by Lyndsey Ellis

Last week, a young woman from Kansas City, Missouri made national headlines after changing her first name from Keisha to Kylie in response to racist bullying. She's only 19 years old, she lives in a not-so-diverse neighborhood and, to make things even more complicated, she's biracial.

I don't intend to judge or bash Kylie's decision to go with a new name. I don't agree or disagree with her decision, but hope that it makes her sleep better at night, assuming that she won't be taunted anymore by her peers. Still, I couldn't help expressing nagging thoughts on the subject that refuse to go away.

I'm upset and I'll tell you why.

Growing up, I dealt with the exact opposite longing: to have a name that was considered 'blacker' and more in tune with my identity as an African-American. I can recall times where I've been playfully teased about my so-called white girl moniker by classmates with eccentric names that somehow reflected their African roots at my predominately black school, although I never had reason to view it as something done out of malice. I've even joked with my mother about her wanting me to have more chances at getting a decent job as her reason behind choosing a more traditional name, but a complete name change never occurred.

Reading Kylie's story caused an old hurt to surface, one that I didn't realize I'd owned. This pain is rooted in the fact that black women everywhere, regardless of social status, educational background, or economic standing, succumb to the same racial constraints brought on by society that cause us to place more emphasis on how our name defines us rather than our character.

Some may argue that the choices behind our names are just shaped by the kind of racially biased world we still live in. But, it's time we start asking ourselves if we're satisfied with silently condoning the offensive treatment that comes with having a name considered too black or too white. Restraints brought on by bigotry should no longer be tolerated, and a call for open dialogue among people in our communities is one of the only ways to break the vicious cycle.

What constitutes the blackness or the whiteness of a name anyway? How long are we going to let judgmental and racist attitudes dictate our actions, even in relation to something as sacred as choosing a name? What alternative solutions are available to those who want to avoid being misunderstood and ostracized on the basis of what's on their birth certificate? And, how will effectively addressing this issue add to the emotional stability and self-worth of people of color, particularly black females?

These are questions that I hope remain fresh in my mind when it comes time to give birth and name my own children. I've found that I'd much rather try to tackle the root of the problem than brood over whether my kids' authenticity as black citizens will be questioned by people of their own race, what type of crowd they'll fit into, or if they'll advance in their careers sooner with a certain type of name. And, I'm hoping beautiful, young women like Kylie will also be given the space and opportunity to reflect on ways to tear down the existing flawed social structure without having to alter any part of themselves to do so.


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