Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Otherness of Barack Obama:
"It's the names"


This McCain ad aims to make sure you remember the Democratic candidate is a "skinny Black guy with a funny name."

The other day a friend of mine admitted something she found very upsetting, something she was sure she'd be condemned for. She finds the idea of Barack Obama in the White House frightening.

She's a hard working, accomplished, late middle-aged, working class white woman. Deeply ensconced in the liberal ambiance of Northern California, she will vote for Obama in November; about that there is no question. But she finds the idea of him as president scary.

Friends, a little shocked but supportive, pressed her -- "Why? What is it that gives you that feeling?"

She suggested, "It's my racism..." But we knew that, though true as it is for all of us who are white, was too vague to be meaningful. She thought some more and explained, "It's the names. I felt it when I watched Michelle's speech and his daughters came on stage. They were called something I can't pronounce."

Obama's daughters are named Malia Ann and Sasha (short for Natasha, actually).

Neither of these is an uncommon name in the present United States. According to the name frequency tool described here, Malia ranked 403rd in popularity for girls in 2007. The name did not appear with any frequency before the mid-1970s. Sasha, as a girl's name (I think of it as something men are called in Russian fiction) ranked 350th in 2007. It was 256th in the mid-1980s and largely unused before the 1960s.

My friend's name, which I am not going to share out of respect for the quality of confidence she gave us in discussing something that troubled her, hit 259th in the mid-1930s and just about disappeared from common usage shortly after she was born.

And "no names starting with Barack were in the top 1000 names in any decade" according to the same tool. That may change.

So what is with white perceptions that African Americans have "strange" names, besides a stratagem to deflect awareness of our own racism?

I did a little light-weight research on the history of African American naming customs here and here. Both authors suggest that laying great stress on the empowerment of naming may have roots in the African customs brought by the slaves. But since losing the power to choose one's own name was of the essence of slavery, selecting one's name became identified with freedom.

The slaves brought to the U.S. from Africa had to endure a number of brutal crimes against them, not the least of which was being stripped of the names they were given in their native countries. These names held great importance, as they were often bestowed during special ceremonies held to celebrate the giving of a new name. This forced abandonment of something so precious destroyed a vital link to their countries of origin and took away a heritage that dated back much further than that of their enslavers. ... Slave owners thought nothing of replacing what they considered to be strange-sounding, exotic names with ones they could more easily pronounce. ...

After the conclusion of the Civil War, one of the first things that many freed slaves did was cast aside the names that had been forced upon them by their former masters and adopt new names that reflected their freedom.

In my own lifetime, I've seen another flowering of African American naming choices. When I was younger, I thought, from experience, of Black people as having names like "Eddie Washington" and "Eva Jefferson." But since the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, African Americans have exercised joyous creativity in naming their children, adopting names that people thought of, rightly or wrongly, as authentically African, or Muslim, or simply beautiful.

This freedom in naming has a cost in discrimination from white society. The National Bureau of Economic Research reports a complex 2001 study in which resumes from fictitious persons whose race might be signaled by their names were sent out in response to Chicago "help wanted" ads.

Job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback.

Names matter.

During the Democratic National Convention, I remember reading somewhere a complaint that every speaker kept saying over and over "Barack Obama..." this and "Barack Obama..." that. Maybe that was far more intentional than I realized. Maybe the speechwriters and speech vetters over-repeated the candidate's name in order to help inoculate white America against our instinctive racist recoil from an unfamiliar moniker.

On some level this works. Note that my friend described her discomfort with "the names" as stemming from the family, not the guy himself. We're getting used to "Barack Obama." We're getting used to thinking of "the skinny Black guy with the funny name" as our next President. We have a ways to go, but together we can get there.

3 comments:

DOUGLAS FIELD said...

SENATOR OBAMA, PLEASE GIVE AMERICA ~ A DOSE OF REALITY ON THIS HORROR !!!

SENATOR OBAMA,THIS JUDICIAL INJUSTICE HAS BECOME AN AMERICAN ART FORM,AND NO LONGER CAN BE KEPT HIDDEN OR SECRET FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE !!!

LETS ALL HOPE OUR MEDIA FRIENDS CONTINUE TO SHOW AN INTEREST IN REPORTING ON THIS AMERICAN HORROR FACING THESE (TENS OF THOUSANDS) FORGOTTEN AND TRAPPED POORER AMERICANS, AND HOW THIS PRESIDENTIAL CONTENDER HANDLES THIS VERY SERIOUS ISSUE FACING AMERICA'S LATINO AND BLACK AMERICAN COMMUNITIES ??

WITH 80% OF THE BLACK AMERICAN VOTERS SAYING THEY SUPPORT SENATOR OBAMA IN THIS PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, IT IS ONLY FAIR FOR EVERYONE TO KNOW PRIOR BEING ELECTED OUR NEXT PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES HOW THIS DEMOCRATIC SENATOR TRULY FEELS ABOUT THIS AMERICAN JUDICIAL INJUSTICE CONTINUING TO INFLICT GRAVE HARM ON THE BLACK & LATINO AMERICAN FAMILIES AND THEIR COMMUNITIES NATIONWIDE ???

*** WHEN GOD'S FACE BECAME VERY RED ***
THE US SUPREME COURT GAVE ENEMY COMBATANTS FEDERAL APPEAL HC RIGHTS LAWYERS AND PROPER ACCESS TO US FEDERAL COURTS,AND POORER AMERICANS (MANY EVEN ON DEATH ROW) ARE DENIED PROPER FEDERAL APPEAL LEGAL REPRESENTATION TO OUR US FEDERAL COURTS OF APPEAL, AND ROTTING IN AMERICAN PRISONS NATIONWIDE ????

**** INNOCENT AMERICANS ARE DENIED REAL HC RIGHTS WITH THEIR FEDERAL APPEALS !
THE AMERICAN PEOPLE ARE $LOWLY FINDING OUT HOW EA$Y IT I$ FOR MIDDLE CLA$$ AND WORKING POOR AMERICAN$ TO FALL VICTIM TO OUR U$ MONETARY JUDICIAL $Y$TEM.

****WHEN THE US INNOCENT WERE ABANDONED BY THE GUILTY ****
The prison experts have reported that there are 100,000 innocent Americans currently being falsely imprisoned along with the 2,300,000 total US prison population nationwide.
Since our US Congress has never afforded poor prison inmates federal appeal legal counsel for their federal retrials,they have effectively closed the doors on these tens of thousands of innocent citizens ever being capable of possibly exonerating themselves to regain their freedom through being granted new retrials.

This same exact unjust situation was happening in our Southern States when poor and mostly uneducated Black Americans were being falsely imprisoned for endless decades without the needed educational skills to properly submit their own written federal trial appeals.

This devious and deceptive judicial process of making our poor and innocent prison inmates formulate and write their own federal appeal legal cases for possible retrials on their state criminal cases,is still in effect today even though everyone in our US judicial system knows that without proper legal representation, these tens of thousands of innocent prison inmates will be denied their rightful opportunities of ever being granted new trials from our federal appeal judges!!

Sadly, the true US *legal* Federal Appeal situation that occurs when any of our uneducated American prison inmates are forced to attempt to submit their own written Federal Appeals (from our prisons nationwide) without the assistance of proper legal counsel, is that they all are in reality being denied their legitimate rights for Habeas Corpus and will win any future Supreme Court Case concerning this injustice!

For our judicial system and our US Congressional Leaders Of The Free World to continue to pretend that this is a real and fair opportunity for our American Middle Class and Working Poor Citizens, only delays the very needed future change of Federal Financing of all these Federal appeals becoming a normal formula of Our American judicial system.

It was not so very long ago that Public Defenders became a Reality in this country.Prior that legal reality taking place, their were also some who thought giving anyone charged with a crime a free lawyer was a waste of taxpayers $$.

This FACADE and HORROR of our Federal Appeal proce$$ is not worthy of the Greatest Country In The World!

***GREAT SOCIETIES THAT DO NOT PROTECT EVEN THEIR INNOCENT, BECOME THE GUILTY!

A MUST READ ABOUT AMERICAN INJUSTICE:
1) YAHOO AND 2) GOOGLE
MANNY GONZALES THE KID THAT EVERYONE FORGOT IN THE CA PRISON SYSTEM. ** A JUDICIAL RIDE OF ONES LIFE !

lawyersforpooramericans@yahoo.com
(424-247-2013)

Anonymous said...

I think you have touched on something few will admit. I have to say when I first heard his name, I had reactions varying from "WTH?" to "Wait, how did it go again?" I think it is a factor. It doesn't even strike me as African American (the way his girls' names do, actually), it's quite foreign.

I have also noticed that I've gotten used to it over the last several months and I hardly notice it now. But then, I'm much more of a politcal wonk than most people, so I've had much more time to not only get used to it, but become much more familiar with his platform, stated goals, etc.

And the campaign he's running is nothing short of absolutely marvelous (your post previous to this one is an example.)

Mary said...

My very liberal sister thought that Palin was a strange one to name her sons Trac and Trig - I had to remind her of Barack's name! I'm from a generation of plain names and wished I had done different with my kids.

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