A biracial teenager in Kansas has put her own name on the line in the long-raging debate in the African-American community about whether black-sounding names do our children a disservice: The girl legally changed her name from Keisha to Kylie.
We’ve talked before on MyBrownBaby about the conflicted emotions many African Americans have about these names. It’s an issue that can turn a polite dinner party upside down: Are they giving a child a handicap right out of the gate, ensuring she won’t ever get called in for the interview? Are they a sign of racial pride that should be celebrated—white folks and uppity Negroes be damned?
And how about the names derived from liquor or designer labels, like Courvoisier or Nautica? Is it okay to laugh at them, or should those parents be applauded for their creativity and freedom from pretense?
In the case of the former Keisha Austin, 19, of Kansas City, the freedom she sought was to escape the bullying and ridicule that she says has been directed at her by her mostly white classmates since she was a little girl.
While her white mother, Cristy Austin, thought the name Keisha would represent the “strong, feminine, beautiful black woman” that she was carrying in her belly when she was pregnant with her daughter, the baby girl found that it meant something else to her classmates in Kansas. As chronicled in the Kansas City Star, Keisha endured some painful, racist treatment during her school years.
“It’s like they assumed that I must be a certain kind of girl,” she told the paper. “Like, my name is Keisha so they think they know something about me, and it always felt negative.”
She said other kids would ask her if there was a “La” or a “Sha” in front of her name. And always there would be snickering attached to the questions.
And it wasn’t just kids—she had a teacher ask if there was a dollar sign in her name, like the singer Ke$ha (who, it should be pointed out, is a white girl).
While she wanted to flee the name Keisha, the teen is clever enough to recognize that she needs to get out in front of the statement she might be sending to the black community. She told the Star that Keisha is a “beautiful name,” but it just doesn’t “fit” her.
“It’s not something I take lightly,” she said, as she began to cry. “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.”
It’s a touchy, difficult topic because there will be raw emotions on every side. As African Americans, most of us know men or women who are embarrassed by their black-sounding names, wishing they had the nerve to step out there and make a change, wondering if the name will be a burden throughout their lives. But we all have that militant cousin who would blow up the spot if he found out that there existed a black person somewhere in the world who was embarrassed by their name.
But what stance should we take on the teenager in Kansas—should she be applauded, or do we need to take a road trip to Kansas City and pull a Drop Squad on this girl to get her mind right?
Where do you stand—thumbs up or down on the name change?
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.