*Well, you’ve got to give her mother some credit, she had good intentions.
As a Caucasian woman giving birth to a biracial girl, Cristy Austin had no second thoughts when it came to what she would name her baby, Keisha. She saw the name as a symbol of pride; a representation of a strong, feminine, beautiful black woman. She wanted her child to grow up with a positive connection to her culture.
“I saw it as a source of pride,” Cristy says. “I wanted her to have that.”
But to Keisha, the name she was born with never felt right. The looks she got when strangers met her were rooted in racial stereotypes. Before she graduated from Shawnee Mission North High School last year, some classmates associated her name with video vixens, neck-rolling and Maury Povich tabloid fodder, according to an article in the Kansas City Star.
Not only was it frustrating, it hurt.
So mom’s beautiful intent had a difference response as Keisha grew up in the real world. A world where rascism, bigotry and prejudice seems to rear its ugly head at every opportunity. As you are problably deftly aware, we are judged harshly, oftentimes instinctively, whether our name is Keisha vs. Belinda; Michael vs. Muhammad; Luis vs. Chang. Depending on where a name lands in your psyche, you’re either a baby-mama or a scholar; a terrorist or a saint; an illegal alien or a tech genius.
The Kansas City Star gives examples of how these stereotypes continue to be propagated in the most consistent of mediums, the music a lot of people Keisha’s age listen to.
Last year the hit song “Cashin Out” by rapper Ca$h Out referred to Keisha not only as a kind of marijuana, but also a ho. Kendrick Lamar, one of hip-hop’s biggest names, has the song “Keisha’s Pain,” about a girl stuck in poverty, using her body to survive.
For a young woman still trying to find her way in the world, still fumbling with the idea of who she wants to be, this is all too much to bear; and in an “enough is enough” response to something way out of her control, 19-year-old Keisha has now changed her name to Kylie.
Already you can see the difference it will make in her life…at least until she is actually seen.
Remember that scene in the Oscar-winning “Crash,” when the disgruntled client asks the hard-as-nails supervisor of health insurance claims what her name is? She says “Shaniqua,” and he says, “Big surprise, that is.”
That’s the kind of stuff Keisha deals with. She didn’t grow up in a diverse community. She wasn’t surrounded by a lot of black people. And as she got older, her name started to become a source of jokes. Kids would ask her if there was a “La” or a “Sha” in front of her name. There was a hint of racism and ignorance embedded in their comments.
Even a teacher once asked if there was a dollar sign in her name, like the singer Ke$ha. If she couldn’t even get through a class without a teacher taking a cheap shot at her name, what would happen in a job interview?
“It’s like they assumed that I must be a certain kind of girl,” she says. “Like, my name is Keisha so they think they know something about me, and it always felt negative.”
“It’s not something I take lightly,” Kylie says, tears flooding down her freckled face. “I put a lot of thought into it. I don’t believe you should just change your name or your face or anything like that on a whim. I didn’t want to change my name because I didn’t like it. I wanted to change my name because it didn’t feel comfortable. I don’t connect to it. I didn’t feel like myself, but I never want any girls named Keisha, or any name like that, to feel hurt or sad by it.”