Last week the Kansas City Star published “Burdened by Bigotry, a Girl Born Keisha Changes Her Name.” A 19-year-old woman born to a single white mom (and a seemingly absentee black dad) explained to the publication why she opted to switch from what is widely considered to be a black name to a name—Kylie—that’s, let’s face it, stereotypically considered more “white.”
“[Changing my name isn’t] something I take lightly,” Kylie told the publication. “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.”
According to the article, Kylie’s mother originally decided on the name “Keisha” because she wanted her daughter to have a name that “represented a strong, feminine, beautiful black woman” and wanted to “instill that confidence and connectivity to the culture.”
I respect that. Just as I do Kylie’s wish to change her name from “Keisha.” It’s her name, and she can do what she wants with it. But despite the tears of joy that flowed when the interviewer asked her how she felt the first time she was called by her new name, I don’t believe Kylie will get the desired result that she ultimately seeks, which is acceptance in her community. (The reporter described it as not diverse and not having a lot of black people.)
Kylie’s peers reacted negatively to her old name, associating it and, by proxy, her with ignorant stereotypes about black people. Kylie wanted to end that, and the name change was her solution. But what she doesn’t seem to realize yet is that it isn’t the name that’s the problem—it’s the black, which she can’t do anything about.
I have a unique name, at least in the United States. It’s as common as “Mary” in Greece, and I was told by another “Demetria” (also black) who traveled there that our name can even be found on key chains in tourist shops. Long before I was even thought of, my father heard the name when he was stationed overseas in the service and decided that if he had a daughter, he would give her that name. Voilà.
Every Demetria I’ve ever met has been black. So has every Lucas I’ve ever heard of, except George of Star Wars and Indiana Jones fame. But most people don’t know what race I am based on my name alone.
When I was a kid and even into early adulthood, my name was mocked as “Dementia.” I have relatives who still mispronounce it. There have also been two occasions when I’ve been asked why I don’t go by my middle name to avoid stereotypes about my “ethnic” or “urban” name. There have been plenty of confused looks anytime my name has been called and black me has responded, risen or shot my hand up to acknowledge my presence—but never from another black person.
Some black people have all sorts of creative names. Like “Keisha,” mine hardly registers as unique. Although I went to predominantly white schools my entire life, my parents kept me in positive and nurturing black environments otherwise. I credit those circles with why I can quickly brush off many challenging experiences that have happened in wider circles.
Early in my career, when I was working as a stringer for a national mainstream publication, I noticed that I kept getting assigned to stories with a Greek slant. Apparently the editor, whom I’d never met, had figured out that my name was Greek and assumed that I was. One of the assignments was the release of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I would show up in the hotel lobby to meet the film’s publicist, who would take me to meet the stars of the film for an interview.
I walked up to the man, who was white, with the clipboard, assuming that he was the publicist, and introduced myself as the reporter. He gave me a once-over that all but said, “You’re not the package I was expecting a Demetria to be in,” and then he asked, “You sure you’re Demetria?”
Who else would I be? I assured him that I was. In the elevator, he asked me if I was Greek. I told him I was “just black.” He nodded and quipped, “I didn’t know black people had Greek names.”
I was 22 and eager to please and also didn’t know what to say in response to something like that. I quipped back, “Well, my black dad did,” and that was that. Thinking about it now, I take no shame in the confusion my name might bring, but I am embarrassed for the publicist and his display of ignorance.
On another occasion, long before my image popped up in search engines and Skype was an option, I was working as an editor at a publishing house. I was meeting an author who was in town for a conference. We had spoken plenty of times but had never met. I was waiting in the lobby for her and watched as a woman approached several people in quick discussions, but I had no idea why. She finally asked the woman next to me, “Hi, are you Demetria? I’m supposed to be meeting my editor.”
I piped up to introduce myself, and she gave me the same quizzical look that the publicist had. I was used to the reaction by then and just smiled, waiting for her to put two and two together.
“Oh,” she said as recognition dawned. To her credit, she quickly composed herself and we had a fine dinner without incident. As proof of how unfazed I was by it, I hadn’t thought about that encounter from 10 years ago until today.
Despite Kylie’s mom’s intent to raise her daughter as a “strong” and “proud” black woman, I have to wonder about her job performance. It takes more to raise a woman who is proud of her blackness than bestowing her with what Mom considers a black name.
As far as unique black names go, “Keisha” is black-girl light, hardly an eyebrow raiser in any black circles, which I’m not sure Kylie was part of in Kansas City, despite its 30 percent black population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That her name and insinuations about it became such an overwhelming issue that could reduce her to tears as a young adult makes me wonder how “strong” or “proud” she is to be half-black, which is the real issue here—not the name.