Black Like Us? Her Name Was Keisha

When I read the news about that young teenage girl in Kansas that changed her name from “Keisha” to “Kylie”, I went through so many emotions that I didn’t even expect to have, but I did. While I was able to sympathize with the fact that she felt “Keisha” didn’t fit her (hell, Miley Cyrus’ birth name is Destiny), I was beyond appalled behind the true reasons why she filed papers to change her government name. As a black girl myself, I wish I knew her so I could simply tell her, “Keep your name”, yet I knew the issue was beyond my personal beliefs, and instead I would’ve tried to ask her if she was in front of me, “but why?”

While she carried the name for nineteen years, in her mind and soul, it was a long time coming in Keisha Austin becoming Kylie. The desire to change her name derived from the verbal bullying she experienced from classmates, who reveled maliciously in the fact her name spoke of another race, another culture that they were not a part of. I couldn’t even wrap my head around the fact that her peers got away with the bullying in the first place, and from reading the many reports online, it was a snowball effect packed with overtones of stereotypes, racism, self-confidence, and tolerance. I was immediately frustrated for Keisha. It was evident enough that she didn’t have enough black women and girls, forget the men, around her to help boost the level of self-assurance she would need to trump those trolls and let them eat cake. I was also upset at her well-meaning mother. Do you think if someone made fun of my name and my mother knew about it, there wouldn’t have been a little one on one the next day with school officials? No, and I don’t mean to harshly judge Kylie’s mom Cristy Austin, either. I acknowledge her position of raising a bi-racial child on her own as a white woman in a town not full of diversity. If Cristy wanted some advice on how to deal with issues concerning her young daughter with a racial tweak, who could she have turned to? It seemed like to she didn’t have anybody, and Austin’s likely befriended by a majority of white girls, feeding her inexplicable urge to assimilate. And just to put it out there, I don’t think it was a coincidence she chose the name “Kylie” considering the popularity of Kylie Jenner, the youngest sister of the Kardashian/Jenner family of reality TV. White, rich, and popular. Isn’t that what the young girl formerly known as Keisha wants to be?

What was particularly baffling to me was at 19 years of age, clearly born in 1994, Austin slightly missed the era of the rise of “hood” or “ghetto” names that got a tad out of hand and went from parents using cultural, traditional names with significance to names that even the greatest fiction writer couldn’t think of (as Kylie also felt like Keisha was somehow deragatory). While some names were honestly quite pretty and creative, on the other hand, I will keep it 1,000 with you: I’ve heard names that were straight-up…not pleasing to the ear at all. Incredibly bizarre, you would almost make jokes in your head that their parents were on something when they choose that name. I know this is a mean way to respond, but that’s what so many of us thought, black or white. Still, if you had any decency in you, you kept your thoughts to yourself and got over it. Eventually, in the ’90s, we got used to these unconventional names of the wayward kind, and they were adopted with wide open arms into the decade’s later half of the second coming of blaxploitation films like B.A.P.S. and Woo, and American comedy from earlier characters like Martin Lawrence’s “Sha Na Na”. We were all in on “the joke” and somehow we made it through the storm of the “Sha’s”, “La’s”, and “Tan’s” and all.

“Keesha” from The Magic School Bus

The name “Keisha” is a classic name in the general scope of the black community, and it’s ubiquity even reached the Scholastic market, where in reading about Kylie Austin, I began to remember the adorable black girl character from The Magic School Bus cartoon who was given that name. “Keisha” was a name white producers of television and film could trust to name their black girl characters without feeling they were disrespecting potential viewers. Granted, was it a “stereotypical” choice? Sure. They named the female Asian character “Wanda” and “Carlos” was Latino, but I also saw that they were trying to distinguish that as a ’90s cartoon, they were aiming to represent all children in Mrs. Fritz’s class, which I ultimately appreciated then as I do now.

In the original report by The Kansas City Star, the reporter included facts or recent reasons behind Kylie’s decision and they were both hip-hop inspired and had my eyes rolling. The “New God MC” according to VIBE, Kendrick Lamar has a song titled “Keisha’s Pain” about a tragedy of a prostitute, and then Georgia rapper Cash Out has got a lovely tune called “Keisha” which uses the name as a term for a “ho” amongst other crap. In Kylie’s mind, these were the two straws she was hoping wouldn’t break her. While I know such examples are unfortunately indirectly associated, for a name that’s otherwise erased its “ghetto” connotations for so long, how is it that we’re allowing someone named Cash Out to influence her name change? Why didn’t she just think what would’ve Beyonce done? You think that wasn’t a name that stood-out when she was in kindergarten? There are so many figures in popular culture she could’ve looked up to for a little name inspiration like Oprah. BARACK OBAMA? Honey, trust me. You’re not alone. I had a few rueful moments in pondering what Keisha was thinking on her way to City Hall minutes away from becoming Kylie.

As as black woman, my name begins with “Sha”, atypical of a “black” name. There were times I wondered if my name was a stereotype. I never had any personal afflictions with it, but I knew how mean people could be, especially when they’re strong-willed in the idea their uber-common names made them better than me because they were familiar, unchallenged, and without ties so tightly bound to life beyond Western civilization. Like I mentioned earlier, I heard of names I found highly peculiar. What would make my name any different in someone else’s eyes? But I’m also aware that my mother didn’t give me just any name and wouldn’t allow to feel sorry for myself. “I’m Black and I’m Proud” was no laughing matter in her household, and she’s what you would call “high yellow”.

While she first heard of the name from the iconic African singer Sade, who peaked in the ’80s, it has quite a few meanings, and I recall my mother giving me a piece of paper from a book in which it said my name meant: “good daughter”. It also has origins in the Arabic language, meaning “runaway”, “charade” and that the name is for a person with an intense spiritual release, calming or biting. So in many ways, my name carries a legacy. Sometimes a little research is all it takes in appreciating what your parents were attempting to bestow in you from birth. This is exactly what Kylie’s mom did in giving her the name “Keisha”, hoping to instill pride for her the other half of her daughter’s ancestry. What pissed me off the most in her daughter changing her name was that I felt once again the racist assholes won. She changed her name because of the verbal abuse and low blows. Will Sarah at Kylie’s school be changing her name anytime soon? I don’t think so.

With news of this, reaching me to the core of my beliefs and knowledge of culture and politics, I visited that yellow brick road once more with memories of classmates I had with unusual or cultural names.  While for some of us, it took us a while to learn how to pronounce them, we did learn, and life went on. I also reproduced brief conversations I had with some of my Asian mates that revealed they had “English” or “American” names that were used in exchange for their birth names that harked to their parents’ homeland, like Japan or China. Tommy or Liz weren’t their “real” names, they were brought forward to make it easier for white Americans to pronounce, and I suppose to avoid the many cringes that were guaranteed when their true names would be uttered. I felt fired up about this even as a ten-year-old. Why not just keep your name and have them learn eventually? Shit. You had to learn English. They want to talk about this is ’emerica. Yeah? Well ’emerica was also built on immigrants, so cut the shit and learn some form global respect.

It’s incredibly unfair that when a Caucasian has a funny name, like ski racer Picabo Street, it’s viewed as quirky and wonderfully different and brave. For blacks and Asians, it’s looked as trying too hard and not fitting to America’s otherwise racist and judgmental landscape. And while you can find this demeanor anywhere in the world, it can be challenged that it hurts more when experienced in your birth country, the one place you should be able to come as you are.

So while most will never take the time to differentiate the “ghetto” names from cultural names, either way, Keisha should’ve never been prompted to change her name to Kylie in 2013. I thought my country was better than this, but I guess not when radio hosts like New York’s Charlemagne Tha God, a grown ass man, goes on air uses the name Karrueche as a means to call her “Kowabunga”. What’s more surprising is how Kylie Austin’s personal decision gained national attention, as the reporter, Jenee Osterheldt (catch her unusual name) used the word “burden” in the title to describe her subject’s main concern. To any person of color with an ethnic name, it’s not the our names just like our skin color that will hold us back or back us feel inclined to failure, but our drive and level of self-respect. Don’t allow these racist bigots to convince you otherwise, and that includes all you resume recruiters. We’ve got your Human Resources hotline.

ORIGINAL STORY: Burdened by Bigotry, A Girl Born Keisha Changes Her Name

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