The Nuance of Name

1998 – Washington, DC
The Common Share Bar, 1am

Three friends walk in to stalk seats at a bar, once seated, two friends get up and one holds the fort down. Time passes by and the lone friend strikes up a convo with a neighboring guy and his two friends. After light bar talk, introductions are made. Says lone friend: “Hi my name is Shannon.” To which one of the guys replies: “Shannon, are you for real? I thought it would be KiKi or something with a vowel!” Nervous laughter and the offer to buy lone friend a beer follows.

Welcome to my life.

Some of you faithful Parlour readers may know me as JBaker, but in the everyday world I go by my legal name: Shannon Washington.  Other than being mistaken for a boy sometimes (its a boy’s name), mi nombre has never been too much of an issue for me until I entered college, and then, the “real” world.

In school, while crafting my first design resume, a professor joked with me in private that I was blessed to have an “English” name, unlike a Keisha, Shante, or Kenya when it came to my first job hunt. Truth is, sharing a name with a river in Ireland has had it’s fair share of ups and downs, but while reading a recent article in the New York Times about the challenges facing job-seekers of color and how factors such as “ethnic” names play a key role, I couldn’t help but feel a slight twinge of guilt mixed with relief and sympathy. Truth is, its not so much easier on the other side of the name pool for some.

While my career now is a little more steady, I can tell you countless times when I’ve seen my interviewer’s expression change to surprise after discovering that I’m black (and sometimes, female) when I show up for an interview. I guess that degree from Howard University and affiliation with the Museum of the African Diaspora was just always overlooked. And just like the bar instance mentioned above, I take offense when I am told that I must be lucky to have a “regular” or “white” name, or when someone’s name is called “ghetto” as opposed to “normal.” To me it’s an affront on my identity as a woman of color, as if I have something extra to prove or an unfair advantage over others who share my ethnicity.

While this is not a purely Black/White issue, the same applies to all that feel pressured to change their names in the hopes of “fitting in” because the Vietnamese woman who does your nails probably isn’t really named Angela. If our country is the melting pot that it proudly proclaims to be, when will Shaunda or Rahni ever have the same set of chances Dick and Jane?

Parlour fam, what’s your name game?

Last 5 posts by Shannon Washington

  • you know i feel your experiences and share many of the same feelings. amazingly enough, i wonder where i will be when i am blessed to have children of my own, knowing that even in the day and age a child of mine is looking for employment these issues may still be a factor.

  • My brother’s name is Shannon lol. But anyway, my name is weird–Starrene Rhett. You can’t exactly tell what I am which could be good until I walk in for an interview (Note: My first name is from a comic book). Who knows…

    But the fact that people are so shallow and judgmental based on names is really wack. Plus, one thing I noticed with black folks in particular is that we confuse ethnic names with ghetto. Ethnic is Keisha, Malik, Aisha and even Shaquanda, Jaquay (Native American), Raekwon or Jaquita (which is also Native American). If you look at African names (ie Malik, Aisha, Shakira, Kwabena etc), then you’ll see that names like Kelendria, Shaquayquay and whatever else have similar syllables hence their ethnic nature. Ghetto names are names like Armani, Lexus, Alize, Moet etc. Sadly, 90% of the people in the world don’t think about those things. But either way, it shouldn’t be the name alone that defines someone. Maybe one day people will learn not to be so elitist, presumptuous and smug. smh

  • This is soooo my life. As Alysia Christiani I can’t tell you how many times an interviewer raised their eyebrows and asked “Ms. Christiani?” when I walked in the door. I’m sure they didn’t expect a black woman with a ‘fro/locs/braids to show up. One (a black man) even asked me if I was bi-racial. (After peeping the picture of his white wife on his desk I guessed that this would work in my favor and said yes. Technically I am. You just have to go back a few generations lol)

    When job hunting, I think it’s an asset. My resume + name + very American (read white) office voice usually = interview. It cracks me up that they are so surprised to see me walk in the door.

    I did have a conversation with an black female co-worker once where she was complaining that parents who named their children ethnic names were putting them at a disadvantage in American society. I understood where she was coming from but I was pissed that she only thought that this applied to black folk and their ‘made up’ names. Indian, Asian, Spanish etc names were fine cuz they were ‘real’ names.

    As a mother of 2 boys with ethnic names I thought long and hard on what to name them. I wanted them to have names of meaning and distinction. But I’m also a practical woman who wants them to have every advantage in this screwed up society. So their first names are Hebrew names with important spiritual meanings and their middle names are fairly run of the mill english names that happen to be the names of important family members as well. This way they can go by whatever they are comfortable with/works best for them.