What I should have said when kids were making racist comments that made fun of traditionally Black names.
This post is part 3 of a 3 part post about talking to kids about race. Read Part 1 for more about my experiences of continuously striving to learn more about race and racism and Part 2 for tips on talking to kids about race using the Readiness. Facts. Honesty. framework.
We spent an evening with some friends of friends. A racist incident occurred and I didn’t say anything at the time. I should have, but I wrote this as a follow-up. All of the names of the kids in the story are pseudonyms.
I didn’t say anything at the time, but Olivia and Ethan were in the room and I don’t want them to think I approve of what Aiden was saying. If you feel comfortable sharing this with Olivia and Ethan here is what I wish I had said at the time.
Aiden created an avatar on the Wii. It was a black girl and he named her “Shanequa.’ He thought that was really funny and was laughing with all of the kids about it (Ethan and Olivia did not really seem to get it). He even told a story about asking Stephen to come into the room a different day and guess the name of the black girl. Stephen guessed Shanequa, which was the name Aiden had given her, and they laughed about that as well.
I just recently learned at work that one of the best ways to respond when someone is making a joke that could be considered racist is by asking, “Why is that funny?” Not in a rude or judgmental way, but as a question to get people to think differently. If the person really thinks about it they will realize the origin of the joke. Oftentimes they don’t mean it to be racist and simply asking that question can be educational to all. I do not believe Aiden was intentionally being racist. I think he was making fun of something different, of something he doesn’t understand, which is common. However, the intention of his comments does not overcome the impact.
I personally don’t think the joke was funny. It is rude to make fun of other people for having different kinds of names. It is also racist to specifically make fun of Black people for their names. I researched the name Shaniqua (more common spelling than the one Aiden used) when we got home. Shaniqua is a name commonly referenced when making fun of Black people, especially for the way they name their children. Shaniqua also has origins in Native American naming to mean beautiful and in African American naming to mean God is Gracious.
I also did a little research about naming in general in the African-American culture. Their names are clearly different and sometimes can seem really unusual to us, likely because as White people we don’t fully understand their culture. Just because we don’t understand doesn’t excuse making fun. I read a little more about how Black Americans name their children. The naming, and effort to create unique names, in many cases can be traced back to a slave culture. Here are a few excerpts from an article I read:
- “Some Black Americans decided to liberate their identity by intentionally misspelling a given name so that their name would be theirs alone and would never have been used by a slave owner—e.g., Dawne.”
- “The series [Roots] spurred an interest in the Black community to give children African names (e.g. Ama) or African sounding names. The trend to create African sounding names led to making up totally unique names, which is an ongoing trend. Searching for unique names is also a current phenomenon among Caucasian parents.”
- “Because of the vibrant Creole culture in Louisiana, there is also a French influence in some African-American names. This includes not only French surnames but also given names beginning with “La,” (e.g. Lawanda), “De” (e.g. Deandre’) and with the use of apostrophes (e.g. Andre’, Mich’ele), that represent accents that were not yet available on American typewriters at the time.”
I missed an opportunity to set an example for Olivia and Ethan by asking a simple question when I was uncomfortable with the conversation. I could say I didn’t say anything because Aiden is not my child, but those are just excuses. I lacked the courage to stand up for my own values. I don’t want to perpetuate that culture with the next generation. One of my favorite quotes from a novel I recently read is “Culture is as much about what you encourage as it is about what you tolerate” Fredrik Backman (Beartown). I didn’t mean to tolerate the culture being represented by making fun of a black person’s name.
Oh. Moments (what I will do differently next time):
- Staying silent is not an option.
- Asking a simple question like, “Why is that funny?” can start a conversation.
- Research the history behind the difference.
Comment below, with any questions or areas where you are struggling to have the answers for your kids. You may also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.