Celebrate Difference

The popular book and Netflix documentary Freakonomics describe the process of parents naming their kids as an exercise in branding, positioning children as more or less valuable in a competitive social marketplace. If we are the product, our names are the billboard – a symptom of a larger neoliberal rationale that subsumes all other sociopolitical priorities to “economic growth, competitive positioning, and capital enhancement.”2 My students invariably chuckle when the “baby-naming expert” comes on the screen to help parents “launch” their newest offspring. But the fact remains that naming is serious business. The stakes are high not only because parents’ decisions will follow their children for a lifetime, but also because names reflect much longer histories of conflict and assimilation and signal fierce political struggles – as when US immigrants from Eastern Europe anglicize their names, or African Americans at the height of the Black Power movement took Arabic or African names to oppose White supremacy.

I will admit, something that irks me about conversations regarding naming trends is how distinctly African American names are set apart as comically “made up” – a pattern continued in Freakonomics. This tendency, as I point out to students, is a symptom of the chronic anti- Blackness that pervades even attempts to “celebrate difference.” Blackness is routinely conflated with cultural deficiency, poverty, and pathology … Oh, those poor Black mothers, look at how they misspell “Uneeq.” Not only does this this reek of classism, but it also harbors a willful disregard for the fact that everyone’s names were at one point made up!

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Usually, many of my White students assume that the naming exercise is not about them. “I just have a normal name,” “I was named after my granddad,” “I don’t have an interesting story, prof.” But the presumed blandness of White American culture is a crucial part of our national narrative. Scholars describe the power of this plainness as the invisible “center” against which everything else is compared and as the “norm” against which everyone else is measured. Upon further reflection, what appears to be an absence in terms of being “cultureless” works more like a superpower. Invisibility, with regard to Whiteness, offers immunity. To be unmarked by race allows you to reap the benefits but escape responsibility for your role in an unjust system. Just check out the hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite to read the stories of people who are clearly aware that their Whiteness works for them like an armor and a force field when dealing with the police. A “normal” name is just one of many tools that reinforce racial invisibility.