Why I Gave My Daughter a Black Name — Despite the Perceived Consequences


Photo-of-a-black-girl-baby

As an African-American woman with an unusual name (Dara Tafakari), I know all too well that America is unkind to difference. People have always butchered my name mercilessly. When I got pregnant with my daughter, I considered naming her as my first act of motherhood; I could not afford to mess it up.

Black parents in the United States don’t have the luxury of naming their children thoughtlessly. By this, I mean we are not allowed to step outside the lines of normative baby names in the United States and just be whimsical. We are not called creative, but ghetto. If your child is Black with a name that will give people pause, it is no longer just a name; it is a “Black” name, with “Black” bearing a 100% negative connotation.

Worse still, studies have shown that despite diversity initiatives, hiring managers still discriminate against people with “Black” names. Kwame and Quvenzhané may be more qualified than Kevin but Kevin gets a callback more often.

Some Black parents I know approach the conundrum by giving their child as “American” a name as possible. Black children are already discriminated against by virtue of their skin color. Why exacerbate the problem with a name that denies your children an opportunity before they are able to prove themselves? I understand and respect this viewpoint, even if I disagree with it.

I knew long before my baby arrived that she would not have an English name. That, if I named her anything questionably ethnic, people would say her name with an invisible question mark at the end. Did I say this correctly? Why is your name different? Are you even from here?

Despite all these odds, I gave my daughter the name Samira, which isn’t exactly Samantha. Here is why I gave my daughter a Black name, regardless of the stigma:

  • I want her to have a name she can be proud of.

For me, this meant deliberately choosing a name that spoke to my prayers for her and a name I found beautiful. I loved the name “Samira” because it is lilting. I will teach her what her name means and encourage her to live up to it.

  • I want her understand that her heritage did not begin in America.

Giving my daughter an African name is an act of cultural reclamation. My own mother named me Tafakari (to reflect) at birth and made sure I knew where my name came from. Even though we cannot pinpoint our ancestral origin, we identify Africa as the cultural home for many of our family traditions. If she struggles, as I once did, with the inevitable questions that come from being different, I will tell her: Our ancestors came from Africa. Your name honors them.

  • I want her to know she is capable no matter what her name is.

We often tell Black children they must be “twice as good” to get half as far as their White counterparts. It is entirely true that one day, some recruiter may look at the name “Samira” on a resume and assume my daughter is Black. They may even pass her over. But the truth is this: had her name been Samantha or LaShawn, she would still possess the same talents. I want her to believe in her ability to succeed independently of people’s prejudice for or against her name.

  • Racism doesn’t play by the rules. Black parents cannot win the respectable name game in America.

Black people are discriminated against primarily because we are Black; our names are just a scapegoat. For example, “Tyrone” has come to stand for a “stereotypical” Black man. But did you know that the name Tyrone is Irish in origin? A name doesn’t have to be “creative” or “ghetto” to be Black; it just has to be Black long enough. And as soon as we make something “Black, ” the cycle of discrimination begins afresh.

  • Because we cannot beat racism by placating it, I want my daughter’s name to be a message.

My daughter is and will be her own person; she is not an activist pawn. But the America I want her to live in will have room for people of all ethnicities to exist without Anglicizing their names. Respect for diversity will not come by assuaging the prejudices of others. The more Americans we see walking around with names like Samira, the less surprise we will see on peoples’ face.

We should be able to give our children names that we love without worrying if they will be stigmatized because of it. I don’t know when that day will come. But until it does, I will continue to name my children with hope, with love, and with unabashed pride for our culture.

Dara Mathis is a freelance writer, editor, and poet who lives in Georgia with her husband and daughter.  Her writing interrogates the politics of respectability for women, concepts of femininity, motherhood, and the intersection of race and gender. You can catch her tweeting reckless acts of punctuation on Twitter @dtafakari and at daratmathis.wordpress.com.

Leila

About Leila

Leila is the founding editor of Baby and Blog. She splits her time between editing hair and culture site, Black Girl with Long Hair, whipping up butters at BGLH Marketplace, and writing here. She adores her husband and two kids, her parents and her friends. But she hates Chicago weather although she is slowly coming to peace with it...


  • http://puffpuffpoof.wordpress.com Puff

    Thank you for writing this thoughtful post! I think the names that aren’t primarily accepted are the names that are “made up” (as if all names aren’t just made up…) e.g Shaniqua. I think white people can also get scrutiny for names they’ve created and it certainly places their class but naturally Black people are punished much harder in everything and often white people get a pass for their “down home” vibes (bleh). My impression of African names is that they are seen more favorable and shows a higher level of education but then again I’m coming at it from a black perspective. I’m sure depending on where you grow up in the country no matter what the culture or meaning of the name, if it’s not a Bible name or from merry olde England, white people are going to judge with a vengeance because us making up names is an affront to their sensibilities and totally wrong…smh. This sort of name bias happens all over the world, check out this video from a British talk show (I think the woman defending name bias is notoriously considered a horrible person) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edZjdgU0asM.

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    • http://trulytafakari.com Truly Tafakari

      thank you! I agree with you; I think the more “made up” people believe a name is, the more harshly they will judge it. Even so, just the idea that your name can identify you as Black (to your detriment) is sad.

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  • realtalk

    This would have made more sense if the author had substituted “Black” for “African”.

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  • Samantha

    GREAT, thought-provoking article. I’m gonna share this. Btw, didn’t know Samira was a black name (: just thought it was a beautiful name lol. This white woman at work named her biracial daughter Samira.

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  • Taliba

    This was a great thought provoking article that couold have come from my own heart. I had my daughter in the 70’s and named her Keisha because I was an activist; she was beautiful, and I wanted her African origins to be noticed (she was named after her father and my mother for a middle name-made that up). Imagine my horror when her name became the one that everyone named their child-sometimes having no earthly idea what it meant, or adding a Te, Ka, Na, Wa etc., in front of it!

    However, I got over that and she loves her name, but-she thought she wanted her children to have more “American” sounding names, especially the boys. Thus, I have a Patrick and a Demoine for grandsons; but history seems to be circular doesn’t it: now I have a new baby granddaughter named Saniyah. So there :-).

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  • mayum

    I like the name Samira anyway so… and It sounds more exotic than ghetto.

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  • TeekyToes

    My birthname is the Spanish word for the saying “it is nothing” and I hated it as a child. Everyone butured my name, some inadvertent, others intentionally. Regardless, I wanted a “normal” name like everyone else. I once asked my mother to change my name to “Judy.” Thankfully, she completely ignored me. As an adult I’ve embraced the name the always made me stand out as a child. My own two children have African/Arabic names so I suppose I’ve made a complete about-face regarding normality.

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  • http://www.myblackfriendsays.com myblackfriendsays

    Great post. The prononciations I can think of are all beautiful. I’m sure if I met your daughter and said it wrong, she’d let me know the right way, and we’d keep it moving. Thank you for sharing this (:

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  • http://naturalcrossing.blogspot.com Shaniqua

    Samira is a solid name. It can even be shortened to Sam to alleviate gender bias. It’s also Indian sounding enough that often that will be the first impression. I used to ask my mother to go by my Anglo sounding middle name when I was younger, but now I love my first name. I only allow family and people who are unable to pronounce it (foriegners) call me anything else. I love that I rarely share my name… for the most part when people say Shaniqua, they are talking to or about me. I don’t have to guess. The few other Shaniqua’s & I’ve met seem to initially not appreciate sharing the name either :-). We inevitably get into birthdays and who had it first. The Shanique’s are glad enough that it’s actually a different name. I laugh at the Shaniqua ghetto jokes, though I don’t understand how the name came to represent all that is ghetto. I’m sure they exist but I’ve not actually met in person a single other Shaniqua that lives up to the stereotype. Not like I would care because you can be ghetto with any name. I collect the songs. I love that when a customer service reps of color sees/hears it, there is instant camaraderie and connection. I get special treatment. Maybe they are afraid (lol), mostly they are glad to know I’m black & I’m cool & we take care of business. In my (many) circles my name is considered beautiful. I’m often asked what it means and I tell them what my mother told me. I’ve often speculated that the meaning was made up, by someone if not by her, but isn’t that the beauty of it? You can totally reinvent yourself and who you are.
    That is “The Black Experience”. I get it now.
    There is lots to a name & I’m very glad my mom chose the name I have.

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    • Baby and Blog

      I love your name Shaniqua! I was discussing this article with friends online and I brought you up as an example of an intelligent, progressive black woman with a distinctively ‘black’ sounding name.

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  • Devany

    I always thought samira was an Arabic name.

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    • Dionne

      Point being agreed with as long as its not a white name…As farrrakhan said most of our names are brought on slavery,inherited from the slavemastsers..so until you restore your name to a black one,you are still a slave to this people.

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    • WT

      You thought right. It is an Arabic name. I know many African muslims called Samira, but I have never heard this name referred to as ‘African’ before. It is no more African than a Christian (Biblical) name.

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  • Tmoss

    I think that anyone at anytime can allow rasicm to dictate how they live their lives… My aunt named her children very generic names because of tha addage that someone would see their name on a resume think it was black and not give then a call back… Major cope out…if a person is a racist as soon as you walk through the door it is over…I think you should name your child whatever name you want… But don’t use silly excuses as a reason not to name your child one thing or another… This is a form of racism.. It doesn’t matter if the name sounds made up… It is creative and more importantly it is what that parent wanted for their child.. Instead of mocking we should stand with that person when someone attempts to belittle them or consider them less than because of their name..Fight all forms of racism…

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  • Solara

    I love your name and your daughter’s name, moreover the message behind both. However, as a person of North African descent both names are in fact of Arab
    origin. I used to feel horrible about my name as a child, people found it difficult to pronounce, though it was just 3 syllables and of course made fun of. As an adult people are always in awe of the beauty of my name. Reading this article reminded me of how beautiful and unique it is.

    I feel that some African Americans who wish to identify with the mother-land tend to just say I am from “Africa”, making it seem like some abstract or just one ‘big country where so many black people live’. Please, do not take offence or misunderstand me, but I feel the rest of us i.e. Other ‘black’ Africans living outside the mother-land tend to be clumped as one category = black people, instead of Africans from different parts of Africa with different cultures, languages, traditions, histories and values. So, I’m basically saying, try and refrain from using the words “African name” because between you and me, there is no such thing just as much as there is no/shouldn’t be a “Black (African American) name”

    Ok, I’ll end my rambling. Peace and love.

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  • Amani

    i dont know if you know this but your name Dara Tafakari has meaning in Swahili. This is a language spoken in Kenya and Tanzania. Its a mix between portugese, arabic and the local languages. Dara – means to touch. a soft almost sensual kind of touch. Tafakari means – think or consider.

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    • http://trulytafakari.com Truly Tafakari

      Hi Amani! I surely did 🙂 It took me a long time to get used to it, but now I wear it with pride.

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  • BC

    As an African, and specifically a West African, I find it very puzzling to hear certain names being referred to in the same breath as “African” and “Black”. Some of the names being referred to as above like “Samira” is an Arabic name that Muslims in Africa as well as Middle East and some parts of Asia name their children. Names like Shaniqua et al are names that African Americans have adopted but has nothing to do with Africa. Most Africans put in a lot of effort in choosing names for their children and not for how beautiful they sound. It may be based on order of birth, circumstances surrounding their birth, etc. Also, I must specify that the spelling is unique to the meaning of the name. The Ghanaian name “Kwame” looses its meaning when it is spelled “Quame”. I think distinction must be made between “African names” and “African American” names.
    Now the perception of people who see these names are a whole different argument that I do not want to get into.

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    • Toni

      @BC, I agree. My brother has an African name. My dad’s Nigerian friend suggested it because it was his first son and that’s exactly what the name means, first son. As for it being a detriment, I’ve yet to hear of a native African who has been denied anything because of the sound of his or her name. However, many of the baby names that I heard growing growing up in elementary school were just so odd because they sounded like an ill informed mish mash of words or syllables with no meaning. That’s when I deem the name “ghetto”, though the person who inherits the name may not be.

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  • Dananana

    For those Africans who feel the need to distinguish between what’s an “African” name versus what is a “Black” name, I must ask you: Where did Black people come from? Once you have answered that, then I feel that it is also prudent to ask why you feel the need to act as though we have no claim to use or modify names of African origin as we see fit. Perhaps it is not your intention to denigrate American culture, but I’m finding it difficult to come up with a different interpretation. What exactly are we supposed to be naming our children? Our ties to our cultural history on the African continent were ripped away centuries ago, and naming is one of the few ways we have chosen to reclaim what we can. Insinuating that naming is always just for the sound instead of the meaning behind is stepping dangerously close to the same logic behind discriminating against Black names in the first place.

    When I have a child, their name will be about meaning and sound. It is already decided that any daughters my husband and I have will have an African name, be it of Bantu origin or Arabic origin. And yes, we’re American. Disapproval from “real” Africans and White people alike will not sway us.

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  • Mandana

    My name is Mandana, which is a Persian name. When my father-in-law first heard my name from my husband, he responded with something like: “Black folks and the names they choose. That’s like ghetto with a twist.” Interestingly enough, I’m not black. I’m actually Iranian.
    Samira, also spelled, Sameera is also a Persian name, and quite common amongst Iranians.

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  • A

    Woot! My mother named me Akeylah Imani. I still get the “ghetto” thing, but she taught me from a young age that my names means wisdom and faith in God. They’re Arabic names!

    I’m glad you did what you did. It’s been sixteen years since my mother named me, and even with the butchering of my name by teachers, strangers, and (yes) job recruiters, I don’t regret having my name.

    Samira is a great name. May God bless you and your child.

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  • lexibugg

    My name is Alexious;it was given to me by my father. It is Greek in origin as well as typically use for males.. while some struggle to pronounce it, I have never had an issue getting a call back for an interview or never not gotten any job for which I have interviewed…
    I named my daughter Jamilah; which is Arabic meaning beautiful and hyphenated it with Salome which means peace is biblical and I believe arameic (sp) in origin.
    I never had any hesitation in choosing this name for her. My name has never been mistaken for anything other than what it is; greek. I have only had a single person accuse my parents of making up my name and it was a black male cashier at a liquor store lol…I politely informed him of its origin as well as educating himself by looking it up..

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  • Samira

    Samira is NOT a black name. It is a name with Arabic and Sanskrit originating in the Middle East and South Asia. When you write articles that make such claims as the one you have, you appear uneducated and unworldly. There are hundreds of names originating from the African continent that are beautiful and meaningful that you could choose from and claim as having chose it for your cultural reverence. But when identify a name as from particular culture that is categorically untrue, you just look like a tool. Please tell your daughter, as she grows up, that her name is not black or African…otherwise people, particularly those from Middle East/South Asia, will think she’s very confused…

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    • Dananana

      Why are y’all acting like North Africa isn’t predominantly Arabic? Last I checked, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, etc. have huuuge Arabic influences in their respective populaces…and they’re a part of the African continent. Additionally, there are plenty of Eastern African countries with Arabic/Muslim influences as well. Sooo…Samira CAN be an African name, technically. That is, unless you’re of the opinion that a good portion of the African continent isn’t really African.

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    • http://trulytafakari.com Truly Tafakari

      I hear you. I’m well aware of the Arabic origin of the name, and that the majority of people with the name are of Arab descent. However, I did do some research, and the Swahili meaning I quoted in the article is a secondary meaning. I fully intend on educating Samira as to both origins of her name. In any case, it is as beautiful a name as she is, and I’m still happy I chose it.

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  • Taliba

    Exactly Dananana!

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  • http://www.nancy.cc/ Nancy

    Great post. I especially loved this line: “I want her to believe in her ability to succeed independently of people’s prejudice for or against her name.” Well said.

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  • CJ

    I have a made up name and I hate it. It has no meaning and black and white people refuse to even try to pronounce it. Instead they always ask if I have a nickname. For those reasons, I will not be giving my children unique names. I still think I can teach them the things you’ve listed though. They will inevitably face discrimination because of the color of their skin so they will still have many lessons to learn.

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