Race Card: Why I Might Give My Kids Biblical Names

baby name cupcakes

The first time I joked about giving any children I had Biblical names, my significant other looked at me in alarm. He evidently prefers names with a little more flavor, but when you grow up with a name as unusual as mine, it's easy to become obsessed with names that sound a bit bland. It didn't help matters that my close family members have names such as Joan, Craig, Abby and Larry or that my Arabic-origin name, which gets butchered on the regular, has raised eyebrows in a post-9/11 world.

The madness stops with me, I told myself years ago. My kids will have names that they won't have to spell out, that won't get their résumés dismissed, and that won't make it easy for others to discriminate against them. They will have generic Western names, damn it!

While nowadays people increasingly name their kids after fictional characters, fashion labels and celebrity spawn, Biblical names still rule the list of most popular names. CNN just published an article about how the name Jacob has topped the most popular baby name list for a decade. Also, in the Top 10 for boys appear the Biblical names Michael, Joshua, Daniel and Noah. The Top 10 most popular girls' names don't tilt so heavily towards the Bible—with Abigail and Chloe being the only such names to appear on the list. Still, it's not like parents are naming their girls names out of left field. Classic names such as Sophia, Olivia, Emily and Emma dominate the list.

I never wanted to be one of those kids who shared a name with a handful of classmates, but it would've been nice to find a keychain with my name on it once in a while. Having a popular name isn't just about fitting in, though; it's about economic and social power. Several studies have found that employers toss out résumés featuring names that sound stereotypically black, such as Tamika or Aisha, no matter how qualified the job candidate is. Individuals with no understanding of how the black power movements—not to mention the miniseries Roots—inspired blacks to reject so-called slave names, assume that African Americans with unconventional names are "ghetto."

It's not that I want my children to work for a racist employer, but I don't want their names to stop them from even getting a job interview. This is certainly why many immigrants Americanized their names after landing on Ellis Island and why many immigrants today often go by a Biblical name such as Esther professionally and a name from their native culture, such as So-Young, privately.

I don't have kids now. But if I do, their names might be one area where I intentionally assimilate.

by Nadra Kareem Nittle
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25 Comments Have Been Posted

So sad.

It's sad that we've actually internalized the horrifically damaging belief that our potential for success is determined by the having "ethnic" names. As someone given an incredibly unique name at birth, I actually chose to change my last name as an adult to something even "weirder" than what is on my birth certificate. While my mother had the same concerns that you've stated above, having a distinctly African (and often mispronounced) name has not hindered my job prospects, it's actually helped.

Besides the fact that I don't blend into a pile of Sarah's or Lisa's, there are actually people who hire that have unique names themselves! As a professional in my early 30s, my resume notes past positions from major world players including the most successful software company in the world and one of the planet's more prestigious development organizations.

When we start focusing on names instead of knowledge, we do ourselves and our children total disservices. I know people with beautiful non-western names who are successful PhDs, MDs and entrepreneurs. But if you still don't believe me, just ask Oprah, Barack and Condoleezza.

Glad for Your Success

I'm glad you've been successful. I think I just really get scared reading those discrimination studies based on names. Moreover, I feel like I've not only gotten raised eyebrows for having a unique name, but for having a Muslim name, so I'm sure hypersensitive about this issue. I'm also a little obsessed with names generally.

And this is exactly how a

And this is exactly how a messed-up system persists and reproduces itself ad nauseum. Please understand, I am NOT in any way criticizing this rationale - it is perfectly understandable. None of us want our children to suffer over BS like this, and as a parent it is simply easier to assimilate sometimes than it is to try subverting anything. Especially not if it is going to make your kid a target. (I had similar rationales and battles over the endless supply of Barbies well-intended relatives would buy when my girls were little)

It's the same beef I've always had with things like mentoring programs. At the the end of the day, mentoring programs help individuals better navigate around the rigged rules of the game in order to be more successful, and this in itself is a wonderful thing. But it does little to actually change the game. I wish we knew how to do that better, without sacrificing individuals in the process.

Interesting. To complicate:

Interesting. To complicate: my (white) sister and BIL named their son Ezekiel. My BIL's very, um, traditional? family had a overtly negative reaction to the name but wouldn't say why until his mother finally blurted out "but that's a black person's name!" So--biblical names, I think, are probably more "colorblind" than names with African or Muslim origins, but not necessarily without stereotyped baggage.

Ezekiel is Biblical

Except "Ezekiel" is a very biblical, traditional Hebrew name. Ezekiel is one of the books of the Old Testament in the Bible.

I'm confused

Since when is Chloe biblical? It's Greek.
And I can't speak much to people's assumptions when it comes to certain ethnic/cultural names but I can tell you that a common name doesn't make constant corrections go away. My mother named me a good Christian name which also happens to be Jewish and Muslim. People constantly misspell and mispronounce it because there are so very many variations upon it, and that's just in the Roman Alphabet. And all that diversity aside I still ended up going to high school with a girl who had the exact same name, first, middle, and last; it was four years of administrative hell culminating in the wrong transcripts going to colleges.
When and if the time comes I probably wont give my kid strange names (though I swore it in 3rd grade) but safe and interesting options through middle and nicknames so when they're old enough they can choose how to present themselves to the world.

Biblical Greek . . .

Parts of the Bible were also written in Greek, and by Greeks . . . The Gospel of Luke, for example. Within the Bible you will find Hebraic, Aramaic, Greek and some Roman names (for the most part).

I'm biracial, and was given a

I'm biracial, and was given a rather obscure (at the time) name. It made my life hell. Every time I used a credit card, registered for a class, made a reservation at a restaurant, or introduced myself, I would get questioned about my name's origin and my ethnicity (which had nothing to do with my name). I grew up in a part of the US that is less "tolerant" than many others, and I was on the receiving end of a lot of mockery. When people weren't interrogating me about my ethnicity, they would make cracks like "Wow, your parents must have hated you" and "Your name is ____? I thought that was a <disease/medication/other scientific thing>." The most disturbing aspect of my weird name was that no one could remember it. In college and late high school, I was primarily addressed as "Hey, you."

I legally changed my name when I was 20. The final straw was when I realized that my study group in college still couldn't pronounce my name was after I'd worked with them three days a week for three months. It's a relief to be able to say my name without getting a series of follow-up questions about my ethnic background or what my parents were smoking when they named me. If I ever have children (and I probably won't) I will give them somewhat conventional names. The name I chose is rare enough that I never meet anyone with my chosen name, but common enough that it's not crazy and unheard of.

Oops, part of my text got

Oops, part of my text got deleted because it thought I was doing HTML. That should read "Your name is ____? I thought that was a (disease, medication, some other vaguely scientific or esoteric thing)."

Unique names do not hinder success

My name is Jehan and I am a Pakistani female. This name has never held me back or stopped me from being successful and respected. I do often go by the nickname "Jay" but everyone knows that my real name is Jehan. Yes, I get asked on a regular basis what my heritage is and it can get annoying but I wouldn't give up my name because of that. I respect this author's opinion but I do not agree with it. I think if you love your name, and you own it, say it with pride and confidence, then you can be successful, popular, and respected whether your name is John or Jo-quesha. YOU define your name, your name doesn't define you!

Except that while it may not

Except that while it may not have affected you, it does affect many people with ethnic sounding names. Check out this article to see just one example of name bias:


In the more racist parts of America, do you really think a woman named Sheniqua will get called back for interviews as much as someone named John?

It's bothersome that names

It's bothersome that names are still, still, still so stereotyped. I've known one Aliyah and one Aisha, and both were white. It's a shame that so many people are still so unwilling to accept names from areas other than English or Biblical names. Although I have to say, my last name is a traditional English name, and it gets butchered regularly. And my first name, though commonplace enough, is usually mistaken for a more popular version of it. (While we're at it, my middle name is a nonstandard-in-English spelling, which has problems of its own). In short, I don't know anyone who has avoided correcting someone on the pronunciation of their name.

I think, personally (not that it's any of my business, but that's never stopped me before) that you should name your kids whatever you want. People will deal with it because they have to; no progress is going to be made if everyone demurs and names their kids "acceptable" names, and no one will have any right to complain that a well-qualified candidate is turned away because of his or her name. Don't name your kids for the benefit or comfort of other people. That just seems so wrong.

In a practical sense, there

In a practical sense, there is often middle ground in the naming game. For example, naming children "after" (or "in thought of" or "honor of") culturally important historical figures can strike a balance, as they often have first names that do not draw enormous attention but can have weighty significance. Americans also frequently have a first and a middle name, giving two opportunities to convey to our children our wishes for them and markers of identity. It is a very easy way to give a name of cultural importance and one of ease of use and allow the child to choose which they may go by. There are meanings to names that can also be important parts of the "story" the names we give. For example "Victoria" (victory). Like so many things there is a spectrum. It does not have to be "either/or".

unusual names as an opportunity for learning

I'm white, and my parents gave me a "black" first name (Maisha, which means "life" in Swahili) and a generic middle name (Dawn), with the idea that if I hated my first name I could go by my middle name. I actually really like my first name, and it has played a large role in inspiring me to learn about race, white privilege, multiple forms of oppression, and my name's culture of origin. Frequently having to spell, pronounce, and explain my name has been an ongoing minor annoyance at times, but other times I see it as an opportunity to share knowledge that I find important and to start conversations about assumptions, stereotypes, and privilege.

Family names

It's not just job interviews, it's bank loans and credit cards and more. But do you want to saddle a vibrant child with a name suitable for homeschooling, the Amish, or "Children of the Corn"? Connecting a child to his or her ancestry can be done with a middle name, too. And historic names resonate with the establishment, stand out without challenging Western spelling and phonetics, and give a kid a positive feeling. Two girls I know are named Hilary and Allison, after the explorers, which I thought was great. If I had a son, I might name him Armstrong, for the first man to walk on the moon. There are options!

What's wrong with

What's wrong with homeschooling or Amish people?

The changing of names with

The changing of names with immigrants is definitely not a new thing, and unfortunately, necessary at times. I know my grandfather, when he arrived in New York as a Jewish refugee, felt that the only way to protect himself was to change his name. For him, his name meant discrimination, harassment, and even death. He was so terrified that Americans would treat him the same as he was treated in Czechoslovakia that he changed his name to John (His birth name Hanus Ullmann. Very, very Jewish and very, very Czechoslovakian). He also converted to Protestantism, thus losing his Jewish heritage.

I wish people wouldn't discriminate so much based on names. My fiance works in the HR field, and he says that it's a huge problem with some hiring managers, and it's true that they toss aside resumes with "ethnic"-sounding names. He also said that it's true with politics, however, in recent years, things have gotten tremendously better, although it is not good enough yet. I honestly don't think that Barack Obama would have been able to win even 15 years ago, mostly due to his name, and it's sadly obvious that his name STILL hinders him, with all of those dipsh*ts saying he's Muslim simply because of his name.

Another thing that I've noticed in recent years is people giving their children strange names. I'm talking names like Apple. If anything, naming your kid after a fruit, no matter how cute it is, is going to inhibit them later on in life. Which is why nicknames were invented.

IME, kids are going to be

IME, kids are going to be unhappy with their names regardless if you choose a "normal" or "unique" name. I have friends who hate their unique names for much the same reason you've given, but I was given a fairly normal name and have always found it boring. I'm actually planning to legally change it at some point.

My exes found an interesting solution for this. Their kids have one "normal" name, one "unique." That way they can choose which one they want to go by. Not perfect, since the kids may decide they don't like either, but that's a risk no matter what.

My first name is a very

My first name is a very common western girls name, but is spelled as if it were in French (I'm not French, but it's possible there's a French person somewhere way back in my lineage), so most people in the US don't know how to pronounce it from it's printed form. This has caused much drama (for various long-winded reasons) for me since I was a tiny kid, and hasn't really improved over the years. Also in the mix, my middle and last names are "ethnic" names (I'm multi-racial, and for the sake of the topic, am often perceived as racially ambiguous) which causes further confusion/drama/pronunciation butchery. I've had multiple experiences where people are visibly or verbally shocked to see what I look like or even hear my voice over the phone because I don't match their preconceived stereotype of my written name. It's not unusual for me to receive correspondence with the title "Mr.," and wouldn't be surprised if my resume has been overlooked because of racial stereotypes. Though these name-related problems can be extremely trying at times, I could not imagine ever changing my name, and if I do ever have children I would like to give them "ethnic" names. Even still I understand Nadra's desire to name her potential children something within the status quo - it can determine a lot of your life experiences.

there will always be idiots

there will always be idiots who discriminate based on names, and naive folks who ask inappropriate questions based on them. they are revealing more about themselves by doing so than the person with the name is revealing by having the name.

the other day at work i overheard a coworker i'd never expect of such behavior refer to a business acquaintance as having "one of those crazy italian last names." i mean really? it's the 21st century! of course, i happen to have an italian last name so that may have made me more sensitive. i happen to think my last name is beautiful and will never change it. one of the things i love about it is that people stumble over it all the time. if you mispronounce it, i know you don't know me. if you mispronounce it repeatedly when i've corrected you, i know you don't care to know me, and the feeling is reciprocal.

my sisters and i all have "normal" first names. two of us like them, the third hates hers. c'est la vie. you can't please everyone.

"Generic" Western Names??

I don't think it's fair to call western names 'generic'. They have meaning and special origins, just as the names of your culture. A lot of them, yes, do come from the Bible via Hebrew and Aramaic: IE: Sarah, Mary, Ruth. Other names popular in the "west"-I'm guessing this means the US, UK, and English speaking Europe, because I've rarely heard names like Stamatina (Greek), Adalaide (French), Elia (Spanish), refereed to as "generic"-have celtic orgins, ie: Maureen ( Little Mary). Simply put it's really rather ignorant to use the phrase, "generic western names". Does the East gave a monopoly on unique and meaningful names? I don't think so.

-Siobhean. (aka: another generic western (Irish) name.

I'm white, with a

I'm white, with a southern-sounding last name, and my siblings all have first and middle names that are either biblical (the boys) or floral/natural (my sister). (Side note: Of mild interest is the fact that the pronunciation of the family last name changed when my father's family moved north from Texas, simply because northerners read it differently, so now it sounds more like it's of French origin.) My middle name is also biblical, but my first name causes me no end of frustration! It's a pretty name, and I like it, but... well, here's a brief list:

1. No one who doesn't know the origin of the name EVER pronounces it right when reading it for the first time.
2. If spoken aloud, people (well, Americans, can't speak for anyone else) will invariably assume I've said a very common female first name with similar pronunciation. There's also another slightly less common name that they'll follow up with when I tell them it isn't the first one.
3. Even people I've known for years throw an extra letter in there because of the aforementioned common name, though they get the rest of it right
4. I get called "Mr." a lot in email conversations because people can't tell it's an exclusively female name (This sometimes happens even if I've spoken with the person, which is funny because my voice sounds very feminine over the phone.)
5. People who do know the origin always follow up with a supid joke about it
6, 7, 8, 9, 10. I AM SICK TO DEATH of repeating my name half a dozen times and spelling it twice EVERY DAMNED TIME I answer the phone at my customer service job. It drives me right up the wall. (I can't just let the customers think my name is the common one mentioned in item #2 because there are two women in the office already who have that name and it gets confusing.)

Oh, and 11. I have no connection whatsoever to the culture the name comes from, geographically, geneologically, or otherwise. So that's kind of awkward as well...

I'm not 100% sure this comment is relevant to this topic, since to my knowledge it has never prevented me from getting a job, but it most definitely affects my work experiences, and if I lived in a bigger town networking would certainly be an issue!

I totally agree with this-

I totally agree with this- and why my daughters are named after their great grandmothers- Sylvia and Helen.


It might be wise for parents who choose potentially difficult-to-pronounce names to give their kid a name that can be turned into an easier-to-pronounce nickname or a middle name the child could go by <i>if</i> the child decides they'd prefer to. My parents gave me a very traditional (though cumbersome) first name, "Catherine," and I always went by a typical-sounding (but evidently confusing to spell) nickname, "Catie." My middle name, "Lynn," when combined with my first name, could make me "Catelyn." My boyfriend has a 4-syllable Spanish name that it can be hard to pronounce for English-speakers (they put the accent on the first rather than the third syllable), and the only nickname for it is a bit childish sounding. It's nice to have options, especially when you're a child, since other children often have trouble pronouncing names (and words) they haven't heard before.
My intention is to go with fairly traditional names that have multiple nickname options (i.e. "Nathaniel" becomes "Nate" or "Nathan," "Madeline" becomes "Maddy" or "Lina," "Kathleen" becomes "Kathy," "Kate," "Katie.") so that my children can choose what they prefer.

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