Cristy Austin of Shawnee Mission, Kansas, chose the name Keisha for her biracial daughter because “to her, it represented a strong, feminine, beautiful black woman.” Austin, who is white, knew she’d be raising her daughter on her own and “wanted to instill that confidence and connectivity to the culture,” says the Kansas City Star. As of the end of October, her now-19-year-old daughter has legally changed her name to Kylie not as some act of teenage rebellion but to put an end to being bullied.
Was Kylie giving in to the bullies by changing her name — or was she taking a pro-active step?
The name that Austin saw as a “source of pride” was not seen as such by her daughter’s classmates at North Shawnee Mission High School. They associated the name Keisha with “video vixens, neck-rolling and Maury Povich tabloid fodder.” Strangers gave Keisha “looks… rooted in racial stereotypes” and asked her if “there were a ‘La’ or ‘Sha’ in front of her name.” Even a teacher “once asked if there was a dollar sign in her name, like the singer Ke$ha.”
With a teacher acting that ignorantly (and getting away with it), you get the sense that the Austin community wasn’t the most diverse, to understate the matter.
Keisha considered changing her name. It’s a decision that, says the Kansas City Star, is “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” or why someone with the last name Brown might have had ancestors from Italy surnamed Bruno.
Keisha decided that, for her, a different name was necessary. As an early Christmas present, her mother paid the $175 fee for her to legally change her name to Kylie. She reiterates that she hadn’t changed her name on some sort of 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.”
Prior to changing her name, she had also worried that her name would affect her job prospects. A close friend sought to dissuade her on the grounds that “there is more to Keisha than ugly generalizations” and that someone who wouldn’t want to hire a person named Keisha might also not want to hire a person of color.
These worries aren’t borne out by research. One study has shown that having a “black-sounding name” can lessen your chances of getting a call back as a job candidate. But as the Huffington Post notes, another study that looked at 16 million births in California between 1960 and 2000 done by the Cambridge-based National Bureau of Economic Research found that a “black-sounding name” had “no significant effect on how someone’s life turns out.”
While Austin would have preferred that her daughter remain Keisha — “It felt like a gift I gave to her, and she was returning it,” she says — she knows her daughter is “still the same person, regardless of her name” and emphasizes that “whatever she has to do to feel good on the inside, I have to be OK with that.”
Austin’s attempt to provide her biracial daughter with a sense of her identity by naming her Keisha is commendable. The response from her daughter’s school community and from others was simply ugly. In other, more diverse parts of the country — on either coast or in a major metropolitan area, whether Chicago or New York City — Keisha’s name would probably not have become such fodder for racist bullies. Becoming Kylie is how one young woman decided to take control of a tough situation and show up the bullies by taking away the reason they were taunting her and moving on.
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