Tuesday, April 22, 2008

On having a black name

My blog name is my grandmother's name, Daisy. My real name is one that would identify me very easily, so I don't use it. But I recently realized that something is missing in my online identity. While reading about The Carnival of Allies (proposed by The Angry Black Woman), I noted that I have never had to pointedly present myself as an ally to black people (not every minority; I specifically refer to black people) because they have usually assumed that I am.

They assume so, I figure, because I have a black name.


The first time it happened, I was in the third grade. I had moved to Columbus, Ohio, from a small town near Cleveland, where various types of ethnic names were common. No one had said anything about my name, since there were various names considered genuinely odd and unpronounceable in my class. Mine drew no attention there. But then, we moved. For about a year, the class I was in was mostly white. (As white flight reigned, within the year, my classes ran one-third to one-half black.)

The teacher called the roll. She got to my name, screwed up her face, looked confused, even alarmed. She said my name, _____? (Trepidation? Why?)

I answered.

She looked relieved. "That's an unusual name," she remarked, smiling. Why was she relieved?

I answered dutifully, "My mother made it up," which I believed was true. My mother had said so.

The teacher furrowed her brow, "Well, I've heard the name before," she said. She HAD? I was astonished. I had never met anyone else with my name. I thought it was mine and mine alone. Unique and one-of-a-kind.

"It's a N-GGER name!" some boy in the back of the room shouted, and the room erupted with laughter. I was too stunned to be embarrassed. I was taught that you weren't supposed to use that word. Would he get in trouble?

"Now, now, we'll have none of that!" the teacher injected, obviously slightly amused.

"But IT IS!" he shouted back, his comrades hooting with hysteria. "IT IS!"

"Well, maybe it is," she answered, "but that's nothing you should be saying like that!" She pursed her lips in disapproval; she didn't seem all that upset by it. Then she smiled sweetly at me, "And I'm sure _____ doesn't want you to talk about her name like that!"

I didn't, but I also didn't know why. I just wanted to cry. I told my mother.

"I made UP that name," she yelled indignantly, at no one in particular. "And they shouldn't be saying 'n-gger' in school!!! I hope you know you STILL AREN'T ALLOWED to use that word?!?" I nodded; I knew.

"I made UP that name," she repeated. "Well, damn!" She lit a cigarette. "Sorry, kid. It's so hard to be original."

(Lately, with all the appropriation issues in the feminist blogosphere, that line has been echoing in my head.)


I am a white woman, a blond, blue-eyed white woman, and I have a first name strongly associated with black women. My mother, a southerner by birth, never stopped telling me she made the name up. The fact that she truly could not remember ever hearing the name before, is a testament to the strength of southern segregation. It is likely she heard it once or twice, and simply forgot it until later. Just like those legendary blues riffs that got lifted from black musicians. (Is it plagiarism if you just FORGOT where you heard it?) And so, even at 50 years old, I have a name that makes people do a double-take. "You're _____?" is something I have heard all my life. "Yes, that would be me," is what I say, as they look confused. I have upset the social order. Names, I have learned, are a big, big part of it.

I always knew, for example, without really articulating why, that I should go in person to fill out a job application. Make sure they see you, I would think, unconsciously. I always called after sending in a resume, made sure they heard me. But even so, it's always been a problem; I have always had trouble securing interviews if I didn't already know someone in the company. And I have always known why. I was happy when the experts vindicated me.

And I only got my silly record and book reviews published when I started using a pseudonym. Were they suddenly more readable?

In the south, a few white women have my name--some have made sure to tell me about their aunts or cousins who have the "unusual" name, and how they spelled it (since nobody spells it exactly the same way). But it remains a "black" name--to the extent that several racist parodies have used my name, for instance, in places like The National Lampoon. Googling my first name, I find: an African-American Olympic medal winner, an African-American recipe website, a still-unknown jazz singer, a model, a teacher. All black women.

In addition, I've received black-oriented catalogs, mass-mailings, spam, coupons, radio station advertisements and invitations to church.

Saturday Night Live even assigned my name to a black crackhead-character in a comedy skit. I was at a small social gathering of mostly-white people when I saw it, and a roar of laughter went up at the mention of the character's name. Just like when I was in the third grade.

For some reason, it's always considered funny. Mistaken identity, ha ha ha. People of all races confide to me, laughing, that I'm the only white ____ they have ever met!

Why, exactly, is that funny? Because I've never understood why.


When I did customer service, I worked with mostly black women. And we were supposed to give our names, like good customer service robots: "Thank you for calling blabbity blabbity, I'm _____, how may I help you?"

"WHAT did you say your name was?"

Here it comes.

I always repeated it, obediently. And I often heard lots of illuminating stuff after that. A few:

"Are you a n-gger?"

"Are you black? Give me someone white. I want someone who can find their ass with both hands, no offense."

"Oh, God no."

(to someone else in the room) "Oh guess what, guys? I've got ______ on the phone, and she's gonna -solve- our problem!!!!" (room responds with hoots, hollers, boos, laughter, etc.)

"Give me someone white, and don't argue with me about it, just do it." (On these calls, I very much enjoyed getting the black supervisor with the British accent on the line; we both enjoyed putting one over on them. But I always made sure to tell the supervisor what was up.)

In other cases, I dug my heels in. Fuck you, I thought.

In short, on the phone, when assumed to be black, I reacted that way. When asked point-black if I was black, I wouldn't tell. "Why?" I'd ask.

"Because I need to get someone who KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE DOING," they'd reply, screaming. They would wait a half-hour for a supervisor they believed was white, before they'd let me deal with their situation, as I could have done in 5 minutes or less.

They made all sorts of assumptions when I wouldn't tell. "Most white people don't want to be mistaken for black," said one woman authoritatively, "so I think you're black, but you don't sound like it." Obviously, she thought this was a high compliment.

"You never know," I said.


:: At a retail location, a white male sales rep asked who was purchasing the books for a display, which was my job: _______ is, he was told. He blanched, shook his head adamantly and had something of a fit. He needed someone who knew about READING.

:: Employees are attending a seminar and a list of attendees' names given over the phone, to reserve seating . Wait, WHAT'S that name, again, who? "Has she finished high school?" (Everyone must finish high school to have the job in the first place, so why this question?)

:: "That's the worst name I ever heard, unless you're black, and you ain't!"

:: "Did your mom expect you to be black, or wasn't she sure who your daddy was?"

:: Lots of canceled dates, due to my name. Lots of changed invitations. And these were (white) guys my friends wanted me to meet, fellas they assured me were nice. I would invariably hear that the guy snorted derisively and/or initially freaked out: "I'm not going out with ______!!!" --until informed that I was blond and pale. Then he would.

But then, I wouldn't.


Various factors have influenced my politics. My mother was an EEOC representative and disability activist. She believed all people should be treated equally, and she lived her politics. And somewhere along the line, she gave me a black name, which has helped to guide my life. I have been forced, even against my will, to identify with a despised people.

"I know, I gave you a black name! I still thought I made it up," she told me, some time before her final illness.

"But it's been GOOD FOR YOU!" she announced. And then she smiled, satisfied.

It has been.