Burdened by bigotry, a girl born Keisha changes her name (Participation)

Burdened by bigotry, a girl born Keisha changes her name

November 4

By JENEÉ OSTERHELDT

The Kansas City Star

 

For years, she’s been asking her mom for something special. Not a car or a game system or some designer purse. What this 19-year-old wanted is more unusual: a new name.

The one 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.

Not only was it frustrating, it hurt.

When her mother, Cristy, found out she was pregnant with a girl, there was never a doubt what her baby’s name would be. The single mom chose Keisha because to her, it represented a strong, feminine, beautiful black woman. As a white woman who would be raising a biracial daughter she wanted to instill that confidence and connectivity to the culture.

“I saw it as a source of pride,” Cristy says. “I wanted her to have that.”

Pop culture changed things. And so did systemic racism. Studies have shown that job applicants with black-sounding names are half as likely to get a callback than those with white-sounding names and similar resumes.

Even people within the black community generalize. 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.

In our society, names like Abdul and Muhammad get flagged for security checks. Tran and Jesus get labeled illegal immigrants. Deonte and Laquita? People see baby mamas, criminals and affirmative action hires. Billy Bob and Sue? Hillbillies and trailer parks.

It’s wrong. But it happens. We typecast certain names. It’s disheartening the way we nurture shame, both within ourselves and others.

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.

“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.”

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?

The more she shared these stories with her mom, the more it became apparent that Keisha was serious about changing her name — not different from the way some Jewish people change their last names to avoid anti-Semitism and Asians sometimes take traditionally American names in addition to their given names.

But not everyone was on board with Keisha’s mission. A close friend told her she should keep her name, show people that there is more to Keisha than ugly generalizations. The same person who doesn’t want to hire a Keisha may not want to hire a brown person, period.

Keisha recognizes that. And she does believe the girls who share her name are way above pop culture stupidity. It’s a beautiful name, she says, but it just doesn’t fit her.

“It’s not something I take lightly,” she 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.”

Cristy started to look into changing her daughter’s name. It would cost about $175 and make the perfect Christmas present. But it was the hardest one to wrap her head and heart around. She loved the name she gave her daughter, and the intention behind the name Keisha Lenee Austin.

“It felt like a gift I gave to her, and she was returning it,” Cristy says. “Keisha was the only name I ever thought of, and when I talked to her in my belly, I talked to Keisha. But she’s still the same person, regardless of her name. But her happiness is what is most important to me. I love and support her, and whatever she has to do to feel good on the inside, I have to be OK with that.”

A week ago, they stood before a Johnson County judge, and now Keisha is Kylie.

I ask what it felt like, the first time someone called her Kylie, and she cries and cries, with a smile on her face. She is overwhelmed by the comfort it brings.

Maybe she could have been the one to take a stand and make a difference, as her friend suggested. But you know what? Before you can take a stand for others, you must first stand for yourself. That’s what she did. Identity is something very singular. Only you can define you.

And in the end, she is exactly what her mom wanted her to be — a strong and beautiful woman. Merry Christmas, Kylie Austin.

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5 thoughts on “Burdened by bigotry, a girl born Keisha changes her name (Participation)

  1. I personally think it is sad because of a name people judge you. Her mother had the best intentions when giving her that name and I’m sure she never would of guessed it would escalate to this. I was given a pretty popular name, which I used to hate cause I’ve met so many and bound to meet so many more. It just goes to show how racism is still prevalent if we are judging someone based on the way their name sounds. Not to mention how that person feels when they are getting made fun of for their name. When the teacher asked Keisha is there was a dollar sign in her name I couldn’t imagine how that made her feel even though the teacher didn’t think about racism it still implied and showed the teachers racial bias.

  2. In a way I see her point in wanting to do that because even her teacher was making her feel bad about her name. Day after day of hearing things about her name and associating her with bad things would make anyone want to change their name. I don’t know this from experience, but my sister does. My family is all Mexican, but one of my sisters’ name is Denisha. When people hear that they always ask me if she is black, they think that that is a black girl’s name so they make a stereotype.However, I think that Kylie should have stayed with the name Keisha even if she got bullied. My sister has gotten made fun of in school sometimes too, but she never felt like changing her name, she loves her name. Kylie would have made a much bigger impact on those bullies by keeping her name, because by rising above it she would have demonstrated that those kinds of comments don’t have any value. It was the name that was chosen for her and the mom is right it would feel like when you give someone a present and they give it back to you. People will always make fun of names, it isn’t like Keisha is the only name people make fun of, there will always be people making rude comments about everything.

    • I completely agree with you. I feel like when Keisha changed her name to Kylie was just her giving into the bullies. Similar to when the kid gives all his lunch money to the bully just to keep the peace.

  3. I personally find this issue to be very apparent in today’s society. It really should not even exist because someone’s name does not define who he or she is, similar to how the color of his or her skin, or his or her racial background shouldn’t. I personally believe a lot of these judgments are made due to the influences of the media, political issues, and as we talk about often, stereotypes. No person should feel that there name is a burden on their life, and should never be punished and bullied because of it. Her mother gave her the name in order to reflect power and pride for who she is, and instead of her peers embracing her as a person, they instead reacted immediately to their initial judgments. Many people do not intentionally place these stereotypes on names and people but we still must be considerate and aware of how we portray something so little as a name. A name may not seem as big of a deal as this article makes it out to be, but in Keisha’s story, it can impact a persons whole life.

  4. I agree with many peoples views on her changing her name being a way to give into the bullies but i also think that it is a way to protect herself and her confidence. It is always easy to tell people to stand up to the bullies when it isn’t happening to you. I think she changed her name so that she could feel confident in herself and not have to worry on a daily basis about standing up to bullies. I do think that it would be great if she didn’t have to change her name and that wasn’t something she had to deal with but i understand why she did and i can’t say that i wouldn’t do the same thing in her position. I think more information needs to be put out there on how much comments like the ones she heard on a daily basis affect a persons, a lot of people don’t think about these comments as hurtful and are very ignorant to the problems these comments cause people in their daily life. I think the problem is that society is very quick to say that she shouldn’t give into bullies or let them win, but maybe the focus should be on the bullies not bullying other kids. If society stopped putting the responsibility on the victim of stereotypes and bullying and starting placing the responsibility on the bully or perpetrator i think things could actually start to change within our society and schools.

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