Monday, September 03, 2007

What's in a name? Maybe a lifetime of joblessness

The top three questions I've gotten with this pregnancy are "How far along are you?" "How are you feeling?" and "Have you picked out any names?" Talk about a loaded question. Do you go with some old family name or something that instantly pegs your kid to a particular era? Oscar, Doris, Curtis, Wanda, Moon Unit, Leopold or Brittany anyone? A name can also tie you unmistakably to a particular area of the country, socioeconomic group or even race.

Think I'm kidding? Check out this Slate article on white vs. black names for babies. The title says it all. A Roshanda by Any Other Name: How do babies with super-black names fare?

Even if you're not exactly sure what a super-black name means, you know it when you hear it: often lots of syllables, random capital letters and apostrophes, or references to luxury retail products or TV stars.

What's interesting to me is that, according to the researchers referenced in the article, until the 1970s or so, Black and White parents chose pretty similar names for their children. But due in part to the Black Power movement, some Black parents began adopting increasingly distinctive names. Also, the researchers found "no negative relationship between having a distinctively Black name and later life outcomes after controlling for a child's circumstances at birth."

Hmm. I seem to recall ABC's 20/20 doing a show (Top 20 'Whitest' and 'Blackest' Names) that disputed that finding by showing that if two job applicants with identical backgrounds were up for the same position, the ones with more "ethnic" or Black-sounding names were not called for an interview.

Given that, J. and I agreed that a key criteria for baby name options was that it look and sound good on a resume. Seriously. Does a more traditional name guarantee future success? Of course not. Is it one less hurdle for a child of color to grapple with in life? I think so. Sure there are people who are exceptions to the "traditional is better approach" to naming who do well in life with very unique names. However, the use of varied spellings of the name "Unique" as outlined in the Slate article seems to belie that. My personal favorite is a local baby a firefighter acquaintence came across during a service call whose name was spelled something like "Omyuneeque" pronounced "I'm unique." Uh, right. See you at the job fair.

Still, since people are so interested in our name options, I've probably derived a little too much fun from answering their questions with complicated, poly-syllabic names just to see the reaction. "Well, we're leaning towards Myshan'Tymeeka Traniece Jazmin-Raven or DeLoQuéShaunishia Möet Lexus." Every single time, a stunned silence and rapid eye blinks ensue as the person tries to comprehend this information or quickly find a polite way to say, "What the hell are you thinking?"

Then I laugh and say, "Kidding. No, we have settled on a short list of very traditional names that we cycle through each day, trying each one for fit. Nothing unpronouncable." An audible sigh of relief follows. One man added, "Well, that's really what I wanted to ask but I wasn't sure how. Some of these kids are walking around with names THEY can't even spell." Exactly.

But there's further name narrowing to be done after you decide on a general strategy and make it through the ethnic vs. crossover name mine field. When you start considering actual names, you have to take into account the personal baggage you and your spouse/partner may associate with particlar names. You throw out those that remind either of you of someone you dated or really disliked or which just rub either of you the wrong way.

"Beatrice?! That was the name of the mom of the girl who was mean to me in middle school." "Shayla?! Why not just put strobe lights in her room and send her to pole dancing lessons?" And on and on it goes. We definitely went through many, many names to get to the handful or so that we were both pretty okay with. But I think we will just have to get a look at her before we decide.

And if the kid REALLY hates it, she can always change it when she's older like these well known singers did: Enjoy!