Yesenia Jones | Staff Writer
“Her name is Reina, it means queen,” a white mother of two said as her daughter rambunctiously ran around my grandmother and I as we waited for our ice cream. Coincidentally, my younger sister’s name is also Reina, so I was very aware of the fact that it meant queen in Spanish. Reina is a Hispanic name. It is commonly used by Hispanic fathers who can often be heard calling their daughters and wives “mi reina” (my queen) or “mi reinita linda” (my little cute queen).
Over half of my family is Hispanic, and because of that, I have heard the name Reina used in various ways. The name is culturally significant, as almost all ethnic names are. It enraged me, and I wondered how the young child’s mother could have the audacity to steal a name from a culture that is not her own, and from a group of people who are consistently oppressed for their cultural heritage. This is something that white Americans have continuously done throughout history. It is a part of their white privilege.
For hundreds of years throughout American history, white people in the United States have had control over what is deemed culturally acceptable in American society. Slave masters forced African slaves to whitewash themselves by leaving behind all aspects of their culture, including their culturally significant names. First names like John, Thomas and Eric and surnames like Johnson, Jones and Brown replaced traditionally African names and are still present in the black community today.
In the 1820s, Irish settlers began arriving in the Americas by the thousands due to the potato famine occurring in their homeland. They were refused jobs, housing and government assistance simply based on their Irish heritage, which was recognizable because of their traditionally Irish names. The inequality Irish settlers faced continued until they became completely assimilated into white American culture and were finally able to deem themselves as white American people.
In recent history, forced assimilation of ethnic groups is still prevalent and affects marginalized groups on a daily basis. Hispanic immigrants are often criminalized and discriminated against simply for attempting to maintain ties to their homelands and their cultural heritage. Black, Middle Eastern and Native American people have also received the same treatment. All of these groups face a constant struggle between assimilating into American culture to avoid discrimination and maintaining cultural ties with their homelands.
Normally, one of the main ways to pass down cultural heritage is to name your child something that is significant to your culture. According to a study done by MIT, names like Brendan and Greg received 50 percent more job offers than names like Tamika, Rasheed and Aisha. This effectively punishes ethnic people for having names that are culturally specific.
When white Americans give their children names that are specific to another culture, their children may face the same name-based discrimination. However, white children with ethnic names are still afforded the benefits of being white during a job interview.
Shaunta Grimes, a white American contributor for Coffelicous.com, wrote about her experiences as a white woman with a traditionally black name.
“When people hear my name without knowing anything else about me, they assume I’m black,” Grimes said. “It happened all the time when I worked at a paralegal firm. I’d answer the phone… and sometimes, people were very rude to me. They’d talk over me or interrupt me. They’d yell at me if I told them something they didn’t want to hear. Then they’d come into the office and meet me. And I could actually see their entire attitude toward me shift. White privilege clicking into place was almost audible.”
While this is only the experience of one person, it is hard to argue against the fact that gaining privilege on the basis of having white skin is a daily reality for all white Americans.
Therefore, by giving a white child an ethnic name you’re stealing someone else’s culture while still benefiting from white privilege. White American parents are continuing the legacy of their ancestors by using their privilege to decide what is culturally acceptable and what is not, consciously deciding to love our culture but not love us.
As the future parents of the next generation, when the time comes to choose a name for your child, take a step back, analyze your privilege and put some respek on our names.