On Having a Black Name

From Daisy’s Dead Air:

I am a white woman, a blond, blue-eyed white woman, and I have a first name strongly associated with black women. My mother, a southerner by birth, never stopped telling me she made the name up. The fact that she truly could not remember ever hearing the name before, is a testament to the strength of southern segregation. It is likely she heard it once or twice, and simply forgot it until later. Just like those legendary blues riffs that got lifted from black musicians. (Is it plagiarism if you just FORGOT where you heard it?) And so, even at 50 years old, I have a name that makes people do a double-take. “You’re _____?” is something I have heard all my life. “Yes, that would be me,” is what I say, as they look confused. I have upset the social order. Names, I have learned, are a big, big part of it.

I always knew, for example, without really articulating why, that I should go in person to fill out a job application. Make sure they see you, I would think, unconsciously. I always called after sending in a resume, made sure they heard me. But even so, it’s always been a problem; I have always had trouble securing interviews if I didn’t already know someone in the company. And I have always known why. I was happy when the experts vindicated me.

And I only got my silly record and book reviews published when I started using a pseudonym. Were they suddenly more readable?

In the south, a few white women have my name–some have made sure to tell me about their aunts or cousins who have the “unusual” name, and how they spelled it (since nobody spells it exactly the same way). But it remains a “black” name–to the extent that several racist parodies have used my name, for instance, in places like The National Lampoon. Googling my first name, I find: an African-American Olympic medal winner, an African-American recipe website, a still-unknown jazz singer, a model, a teacher. All black women.

In addition, I’ve received black-oriented catalogs, mass-mailings, spam, coupons, radio station advertisements and invitations to church.

Saturday Night Live even assigned my name to a black crackhead-character in a comedy skit. I was at a small social gathering of mostly-white people when I saw it, and a roar of laughter went up at the mention of the character’s name. Just like when I was in the third grade.

For some reason, it’s always considered funny. Mistaken identity, ha ha ha. People of all races confide to me, laughing, that I’m the only white ____ they have ever met!

Why, exactly, is that funny? Because I’ve never understood why.

(via Metafilter)