Cristy and Kylie Austin

Cristy and Kylie Austin

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?

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Nick Chiles

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.

12 Comments

  1. Common sense to me. While having a unique name is a nice idea in theory it can often be a handicap. It shouldn’t be that way but the reality is what it is. How many CEOs do you know named Keshia?

  2. She very well could have been a CEO named Keisha. But that’s a road she chose not to take. The CEO of PepsiCo is named Indira. I wonder if she thought about changing her name to Megan or Ashley?

    I think it’s okay for someone to change their name because they don’t think it fits them. And who am I to deny someone’s experiences that have caused them pain and stress. I’m sad that people feel that way about names. Why do we feel that having names that make White people feel comfortable will make our lives any easier?

  3. THE RACISM HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH HER NAME, IT HAS EVERYTHING TO DO WITH THE FACT THAT “BI-RACIAL” = BLACK = AFRO-AMERICAN = AFRICAN-AMERICAN. Kudos to her mother, good job, Mom! BTW I know at least ten (10) African-American women with African names who are CEOs; including myself.

  4. This is a tough one. I know very personally of several people who changed both first or last names as adults. Last name to reflect the parental surname of the parent that raised them and first names, one similar to the story above and with the name Keisha and another to a first name profusely ethnic. As an adult it is a personal choice and I can’t take issue with it. As a child, it sounds like severe self-esteem issues and fitting in, that will not dissipate or transform with a name change. Drop Squad won’t do anymore than her parents and circle of influence. What will she do in those same circles as Kylie and the snickering and stigma of heritage is still attached?

  5. HealthDoseOfKnowledge

    Kylie is the female form of Kyle – etymology: from a Scottish word meaning Strait which is a naturally formed, narrow, typically navigable waterway that connects two larger, navigable bodies of water.

    Sadly, the mindset in the family is extremely narrow, and this girl is nowhere close to becoming a connection between two large bodies or groups of anyone.

    While digging even further, one would find that Keisha goes far back into Greek Mythology:

    Keisha = Aisha (alive and well) via the Hebrew word Keesha (where the name comes from actually) which is the name for the Cassia Tree, which got it’s name from the Greek Goddess

    “Cassiopeia \c(a)-ssio-peia\ as a girl’s name is pronounced ka-see-a-PEE-a. It is of Greek origin. Possibly means “cassia juice”. Greek mythology: Cassiopeia was an Ethiopian queen, the wife of Cepheus and mother of Andromeda, the maiden who was chained to a rock and rescued by Perseus. According to legend, both mother and daughter were placed among the stars after death, and there are constellations named after them.

    So she’d rather be named after a narrow body of water, instead of READING and finding out more about the root of her name.

    That’s what makes me so upset and this little child and her almost bigoted mother. Not only do you name the child Keisha simply because it’s a black name, but you fail to help her during her self identification and in finding out more about her name’s roots and why it shouldn’t matter to other people.

    As a white mother, she could’ve at least explained to her that some white folks are just going to be ignorant. But no, instead, you give way to white supremacist attitudes, and allow your daughter to change who she is because of peer pressure.

    Now, she will always know that if a group of people don’t approve of her, or her future boyfriend doesn’t approve of her, she can just CHANGE.

    • Yes! I get very deep into the meaning of names. It’s the meaning, I feel, that can be the most beautiful thing about a name. It’s why I choose to use my middle name, Nichole, with my first name. Nichole is common, but its meaning, victorious or victory of her people, is what excites me! I understand fully why Keisha has concerns and why she may have thought she’d run into future problems. I just think it’s sad that she didn’t think to dig deep herself and really get to the root of her name. As you pointed out, there’s so much beauty behind it.

  6. Poor girl! Keisha changing her name will NOT stop the racially tinged bullying. I know it is hard for teenagers to accept or even thrive in enviornments in which they are the outcast. I just wish she had the right people around her to build her up and to teach her strategies needed to cope with the ignorance and insensitivity she encounters.

    Also, an ethnic and unusual name didn’t seem to handicap Condoleeza Shameeca Rice!

  7. As a parent of a biracial child I feel for her and give no judgment. She didn’t change her name because she’s ashamed of her “black” side. She just wants to fit in better. I get it. I chose my son’s name because of the meaning but I was aware the anyone seeing it on a resume won’t be able to “weed” him out just based on that. That’s the reality we and our kids live in.

  8. I say, “you do you.” not everyone is built to fight the power. she’s stuck between a rock and a hard place called being black in kansas

  9. Sadly I agree that she will find out that it is not just her name that the bigoted bullies will pick on her about. She will now give them the power over her to make her go to the extreme of changing her name. However she can’t change her ethnicity. They will either tease her for changing her name to “try to sound white” or move on to find some other thing to tease her about. Way too much power…

  10. That’s sad on so many levels. Her experience, our society, the people teasing her, her future potential to shape-shift some more to meet other’s expectations … it’s all sad.

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