Christmas came early this year for Keisha Austin.
The one she was born with never felt right. The looks she got when strangers met her were rooted in racial stereotypes. Before she graduated from Shawnee Mission North High School last year, some classmates associated her name with video vixens, neck-rolling and Maury Povich tabloid fodder.
Not only was it frustrating, it hurt.
When her mother, Cristy, found out she was pregnant with a girl, there was never a doubt what her baby’s name would be. The single mom chose Keisha because to her, it represented a strong, feminine, beautiful black woman. As a white woman who would be raising a biracial daughter she wanted to instill that confidence and connectivity to the culture.
“I saw it as a source of pride,” Cristy says. “I wanted her to have that.”
Pop culture changed things. And so did systemic racism. Studies have shown that job applicants with black-sounding names are half as likely to get a callback than those with white-sounding names and similar resumes.
Even people within the black community generalize. Last year the hit song “Cashin Out” by rapper Ca$h Out referred to Keisha not only as a kind of marijuana, but also a ho. Kendrick Lamar, one of hip-hop’s biggest names, has the song “Keisha’s Pain,” about a girl stuck in poverty, using her body to survive.
In our society, names like Abdul and Muhammad get flagged for security checks. Tran and Jesus get labeled illegal immigrants. Deonte and Laquita? People see baby mamas, criminals and affirmative action hires. Billy Bob and Sue? Hillbillies and trailer parks.
It’s wrong. But it happens. We typecast certain names. It’s disheartening the way we nurture shame, both within ourselves and others.
Remember that scene in the Oscar-winning “Crash,” when the disgruntled client asks the hard-as-nails supervisor of health insurance claims what her name is? She says “Shaniqua,” and he says, “Big surprise, that is.”
That’s the kind of stuff Keisha deals with. She didn’t grow up in a diverse community. She wasn’t surrounded by a lot of black people. And as she got older, her name started to become a source of jokes. Kids would ask her if there was a “La” or a “Sha” in front of her name. There was a hint of racism and ignorance embedded in their comments.
“It’s like they assumed that I must be a certain kind of girl,” she says. “Like, my name is Keisha so they think they know something about me, and it always felt negative.”
Even a teacher once asked if there was a dollar sign in her name, like the singer Ke$ha. If she couldn’t even get through a class without a teacher taking a cheap shot at her name, what would happen in a job interview?
The more she shared these stories with her mom, the more it became apparent that Keisha was serious about changing her name — not different from the way some Jewish people change their last names to avoid anti-Semitism and Asians sometimes take traditionally American names in addition to their given names.
But not everyone was on board with Keisha’s mission. A close friend told her she should keep her name, show people that there is more to Keisha than ugly generalizations. The same person who doesn’t want to hire a Keisha may not want to hire a brown person, period.
Keisha recognizes that. And she does believe the girls who share her name are way above pop culture stupidity. It’s a beautiful name, she says, but it just doesn’t fit her.
“It’s not something I take lightly,” she says, tears flooding down her freckled face. “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. I didn’t feel like myself, but I never want any girls named Keisha, or any name like that, to feel hurt or sad by it.”
Cristy started to look into changing her daughter’s name. It would cost about $175 and make the perfect Christmas present. But it was the hardest one to wrap her head and heart around. She loved the name she gave her daughter, and the intention behind the name Keisha Lenee Austin.
“It felt like a gift I gave to her, and she was returning it,” Cristy says. “Keisha was the only name I ever thought of, and when I talked to her in my belly, I talked to Keisha. But she’s still the same person, regardless of her name. 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.”
A week ago, they stood before a Johnson County judge, and now Keisha is Kylie.
I ask what it felt like, the first time someone called her Kylie, and she cries and cries, with a smile on her face. She is overwhelmed by the comfort it brings.
Maybe she could have been the one to take a stand and make a difference, as her friend suggested. But you know what? Before you can take a stand for others, you must first stand for yourself. That’s what she did. Identity is something very singular. Only you can define you.
And in the end, she is exactly what her mom wanted her to be — a strong and beautiful woman. Merry Christmas, Kylie Austin.