The Truth About Black & Black-ish Names

Photo: ABC/Kelsey McNeal.
I have to say that Black History Month is truly off to a magical start. What are the chances that in the same week a Jodeci biopic is announced, Black-ish would air an episode where Dre feels inspired to name his unborn son Devante? It was a coincidence delivered straight from my ancestors, I’m sure.

However, in true Black-ish fashion, Dre’s pick for the new Johnson baby is cause for debate over an issue that is deeply rooted in the Black community. Everyone else, including Rainbow, seems to agree that Devante will easily identify their son as Black. As such, they believe the tacit professional and employment biases against Black people will hold their son back based on his name. Trying to get Dre to reconsider, Bow pulls a stunt straight from Freakonomics and posts two identical résumés, one using the name Michael and the other, Devante. Her results show that Michael’s résumé is met with more quality job opportunities.

Name politics really are a source of personal conflict for Black people. As I get older and the challenge of having to give someone a name becomes more of a possibility, I’ve struggled to settle on either side of the fence. The reality is that our society does unfairly judge Black people based on their names. It’s a practice that Black people are hyper-aware of and sometimes internalize. I often have to check in with myself to make sure I’m not convoluting my dislike of a certain name with it being too Black. I firmly believe that the Devantes and Shanikas of the world should have the same opportunities as everyone else, but would I name my own child that? I’m still not sure.

For many parents, providing their kids with great opportunities and protecting them from as many of life’s harsh realities as possible is a natural instinct. Choosing a culturally neutral or acceptable name seems like a step in the right direction to that end. But Dre makes a strong case for his son identifying with Blackness in an affirmative way. And for Dre, that starts with carrying a strong name. He feels confident that the new addition will be able to define himself and his success despite his name. Ultimately, Bow agrees. And so do I.

Names like Devante not only signify Blackness, they trigger associations with a certain kind of Blackness. Black names are often associated with Black poverty, criminality, and incivility. Having an acceptable name aligns Black people with a politics of respectability. Underlying this conversation is the importance of class and how it works for and against Black Americans. The truth is that the son of a doctor and a corporate professional named Devante is going to have more opportunities and access than a David raised by a poor, struggling mother.
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