Discovering the Relevance of Words
It’s a non-story, really.
A guy has a name that sounds ethnic, but the guy is white.
This is not stop the presses material.
But it was, shall we say, interesting to see the thousands of shares from the NPR Facebook, the NPR website, and other outlets as well as the thousands of comments, responses, and takes. A friend joked that I “broke the internet” the day “My Name is Jamaal… I’m White” aired on Morning Edition and was published online. It was all over Facebook, several additional outlets have picked it up (some flattering; some disturbingly twisting the message), and the shares and the comment sections were huge. But why?
To explore this answer, I feel a need to explore the genesis. I’ve been named Jamaal my whole life, and, other than a time when I was four or five and told my mom I wanted to be named Bobby, I’ve loved my name. It was unique. It was powerful. It was me. There was never a “Jamaal A” or other qualifier needed*.
Yes, there have been assumptions made about my name most of my life, though most of that began in my adult life. And, to be honest, a majority of the time it is no more annoying than if my name were Michael Bolton and I had to explain it was just a coincidence. Some people, sadly, have been more ignorant than others, either insisting I am somehow lying about my name or attaching a profile with the name.
And so I wrote a blog one day.
I was very active in writing for The Poetry Question at the time and our calling card reads, “Exploring the Relevance of Words in the 21st Century**”… And which words are more relevant to discuss than our labels? As a former and now on-again-off-again writer of fiction I can appreciate the power of a good character name — you know, like Remis Lupin being a werewolf. So I wrote a blog about my name and titled it with a nod to Shakespeare.
Then I turned on the radio.
(The exact chronology here is truncated for ease of prose and dramatic effect)
I heard a plug for Michele Norris’ The Race Card Project I decided to write my own “six word essay”.
My Name is Jamaal; I’m White.
To my surprise, Michele contacted me and… well… that’s enough exposition.
But why does it matter? What, why, and wherefore is a white person being named Jamaal newsworthy?
It is because it is.
Words matter. Discussion matters. The capacity for intellectual discourse is an innately and uniquely human attribute.
It is an intriguing discussion to compare the experiences I have had with those of other commenters who have been stereotyped because of their names (regardless of their skin color, religion, etc. and how that stereotype clashes with their moniker). I was cited as saying “people often comment they expected me to be…” (the quote finishes differently depending on the anecdote.)
It has been implied that when I say people, I mean “white people”. A commenter on NPR, quite accurately, pointed out that people often say People (sans qualifier) when talking about White People and add an adjective (or Proper Adjective) when discussing people of color or any ethnicity other than “white”. In this case, however, people = people of all races, genders, and creeds that I have had the pleasure of meeting.
To speak to the racial division within how the question is approached, though, I will mention that white people are more likely to become uncomfortable when addressing their erroneous supposition. All the stories of “I thought you were going to be (awkward pause and/or nervous laugh)” are involving white people. It is much more common for people of any non-white race or ethnicity to be much more straight forward and tell me: “I thought you were gonna be black.” This isn’t a scientific study, just an observation.
I think the most important question to address is: Does it matter if someone assumes you are black (or white, Asian, female, etc.) before they meet you?
That depends entirely on what baggage comes with that assumption.
I was recently in the market for a new place to live and filled out many, many, many online contact forms for a variety of downtown loft and apartment properties. Several of the more expensive (and in demand) properties never got back to me; several properties that had both market rate and income restricted options ignored my disclaimer that I did not qualify for income restrictions and sent me those listings anyway.
Was this coincidence? Maybe. It is entirely possible I wasn’t contacted back because demand far exceeds supply at these properties and the agents don’t NEED me. It is entirely possible the agents who work multiple properties simply have canned replies they send to all inquiries.
Was I being racially profiled based on my name? Maybe. I honestly do not know if this is the case, and I am disinclined to assume racial profiling, but we DO live in a world where Dante is half as likely to get a call back as David for the same job with the same resume.
If you get an email from Lynn, are you expecting to meet with a woman or a man? Are you sexist if you assume you will be meeting a woman and a man shows up? Most likely not, but we do live in a world where, statistically, women get paid 70-85% as well as their male counterparts.
It is imperative in any discussion we always probe to root of the issue. Is an assumption based on a name a negative (or positive)? That depends entirely on the baggage that goes with the assumption.
I thought you were going to be _(label) .
…And what else?
I have had black students tell me that I am “basically black”. When asked what that means, replies often include things such as ‘your name’s Jamaal, you’re cool, you listen to rap music, you got swag’ or other positive traits.
Even a stereotype that sounds complimentary or positive on the surface is simply divisive (at best). While our brains seek categorization to make order out of our world, our world does not come with ready-made labels. Any stereotype, when applied to an individual, robs a person of his or her individuality.
So, do I really care if you assumed I was going to be black (or Middle Eastern or Muslim) when you saw my name?
But what else did you assume?
-Jamaal Gabriel Allan
/J. Gabriel Allan
/Jamaal Gabriel Alexis Allan
*- Ironically, this was only true until my junior year in high school when a new student moved in. His name was Jamal (one “a”) and he, too, was white. Fortunately, he had a cool last name and went by Floate or Floater most of the time.
** – Apparently, we’ve amended our tagline to simply: Discovering the Relevance of Words. Oh well, point still valid.