Cristy Austin, of Kansas City, Missouri, thought she was giving her baby a gift when she named her Keisha 19 years ago. She wanted her daughter, who is biracial, to feel empowered and connected to her African-American roots. “I saw it as a source of pride,” she told the Kansas City Star. Instead, her daughter found it to be a burden. Last week, after years of racially charged teasing, Keisha legally became “Kylie.”
Cristy, who is white, raised Kylie as a single mom, and without much diversity in her school or community. Classmates of Kylie would ask her mockingly if there was a “La” or a “Sha” in front of her name. And the name’s pop cultural usage only made it worse. Hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar‘s 2011 song “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” described the tragic demise of a prostitute and in 2012, Ca$h Out rapped about “Keisha” being both a term for marijuana and the name of a “ho.” Kylie says even a teacher felt at liberty to ask if her name contained a dollar sign, like the pop star Ke$ha’s.
For Kylie, the associations became unbearable. “It’s like they assumed that I must be a certain kind of girl,” she said. “Like, my name is Keisha so they think they know something about me, and it always felt negative.”
Research confirms what Kylie felt in her gut for years. People with black-sounding names often experience a type of racial profiling that can even limit job opportunities. A study published in the American Economic Review found that job applicants with white-sounding names needed to send out an average of 10 résumés in order to get a callback, while applicants with black-sounding names needed to send out 15 résumés. High-caliber résumés don’t necessarily help applicants with black-sounding names either. While the difference in callbacks for blacks with superior credentials was minimal, for people with traditionally white-sounding names, top-level résumés yielded 30 percent more positive responses from potential employers.
Inspired by personal experience, Harvard Professor Latanya Sweeney published a report that also indicates that widespread prejudice against certain names exists. After Sweeney found that an Internet search of her own name yielded a surprising amount of ads for background check services related to arrest records, she began to systematically look at what happened when she searched other “racially associated names.” She found that black-sounding names were significantly more likely to give results suggesting the person might have an arrest record. “Ads that you don’t place but that a company places on your name appear with suggestions of arrest, even in cases where no one with your name has an arrest record at the company,” Sweeney tells Yahoo Shine. “Is the only escape to change one’s name?”
While Kylie was sure she wanted to change her name and asked Cristy for the $175 fee as a Christmas present, her mother was still uneasy. “It felt like a gift I gave to her, and she was returning it,” Cristy said. “Keisha was the only name I ever thought of, and when I talked to her in my belly, I talked to Keisha.” A close friend also tried to dissuade Kylie and encouraged her to stand up to the prejudice against her birth name.
Eventually her mother came around. “She’s still the same person, regardless of her name,” said Cristy. “But her happiness is what is most important to me. I love and support her, and whatever she has to do to feel good on the inside, I have to be OK with that.”
“It’s not something I take lightly,” said Kylie. “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.” She added that she doesn’t judge other girls named Keisha; this was a personal choice—and for her, the right one.