How Baby Names of POCs are Being Culturally Appropriated

This summer, I came across a Popsugar Moms article titled “Quirkiest Baby Names in Every State,” which is based on a 2015 survey by Nameberry.com.

Although I’m not interested in becoming a parent any time soon, I decided to take a look, just in case there were good ones to add to my arsenal of future baby names. As I scrolled through the list, certain entries jumped out at me — Arman, Umar, Hussein — and many more. I became suspicious; I expected more names like Kinzlee and Rhyan. Why are these traditionally POC names on a list labeled “quirky?” I take a look at the article description.

“The report, which lists the most popular rare names in each of the 50 states…was compiled by taking a look at every first name given to at least 100 babies in 2015 and the percentage of babies with that name born in every state.”

Nameberry chart detailing the most prevalent “uncommon” names for girls in every state.

Logically, the Persian demographic in California likely bumped up the number of Armans in the state, while more Arab immigrants led to the popularity of Yasmeen in Michigan. So these names are not actually “quirky,” but rather, statistically significant.

At this point, I shifted from confused to aggravated. Labels like “quirky” are harmful and dangerous to people of color (“POC”) who have traditionally POC or foreign names; this sort of labeling results in their categorization as “other” and nontraditional, sending the message that they are perpetual foreigners or otherwise outsiders and that they don’t belong in the mainstream population. It’s hard to integrate and be taken seriously as a nonwhite person when one’s name — a significant source of one’s identity — is seen as unusual by American society.

In particular, POC who have foreign- and ethnic-sounding names are severely impacted by hiring biases. In a study by Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business, “1,600 fabricated resumes, based off of real candidates, [were sent] to employers in 16 different metropolitan areas in the US. Some resumes were left as is, whereas others were ‘whitened.’” Over 25% of African American candidates with “whitened” resumes were called back, compared to 10% of untouched resumes. Meanwhile, 21% of Asian candidates with “whitened” resumes were called back, compared to 11.5% of untouched resumes. Anecdotally, I did notice that I received much more interest when I took my Chinese middle name, “Sean-Jen,” off of my resume.  

At the airport, Muslim and Middle-Eastern sounding names can be “compared against no-fly lists,” making way for significant travel and safety complications. In the publishing industry, Black, Asian, and Latino authors who do not use pseudonyms have a considerably smaller likelihood of becoming published. POC face real-world disadvantages as a result of foreign- and ethnic-sounding names. Labeling serves to further distance them from those who have more common, American names, thereby deepening those disadvantages.

At the same time, by removing the racial and sociocultural context of these names, slapping them on a list, and labeling them as “quirky,” Popsugar Moms fails to acknowledge that they belong to the people and cultures from which these names originate. In fact, such articles encourage and increase the likelihood that POC names will be adopted by white parents without consideration of POC, which is effectively cultural appropriation.

Oxford Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” By suggesting to its largely White user base that Sumaya is simply a cute baby name, without considering any sociocultural context, Popsugar is participating in cultural appropriation.

Rastafarian-inspired Mickey ears on a white man: prime example of cultural appropriation

White Americans take on POC culture without encountering the systematic disadvantages that POC experience. While Abdirahman the White bearded hipster may be seen as worldly and cultured, Abdirahman the immigrant is seen as a threat to national safety.  It is unjust that a White dominant society can take traditionally POC names for their own usage while simultaneously discounting POC who have those same names.

Admittedly, there is a fine line between appropriation and cultural exchange; the difference is intent. Take, for example, YouTubers Simon and Martina. They lived in Korea for seven years before moving to Japan to document their daily adventures. They eat Japanese food, visit Japanese farms and temples, learn the Japanese language, and occasionally wear yukatas, a traditional summer kimono. Most people knowledgeable in social issues and cultural appropriation would not consider them to be appropriators.

Simon and Martina reviewing Itaemae Sushi Edo, a sushi restaurant in Japan.

Now, let’s take a look at writers of the blog Gala Gals, who hosted a Japanese-themed tea party for their children. Although some defended the party, geisha makeup, chopsticks in the girls’ hair, and other inauthentic and vaguely oriental stylizations could be considered cultural appropriation.

The difference between Simon and Martina and Gala Gals is their intent and the context in which they adopted cultural elements. Simon and Martina live in Japan. They learn about omakase and sushi from Japanese sushi chefs. They participate in traditional festivities that take place in their own neighborhood, taking care to respect Japanese customs and exchange dialogue with fellow community members. Simon and Martina cultivate relationships with their neighbors; learn about Japanese culture directly from the source; and have a genuine interest in the Japanese people.

Comparatively, Gala Gals barely researched Japanese tea customs, if at all. They took stereotypes and preconceived notions of Asian-ness and blindly applied them to food, decorations, and clothing. Although it would be impossible for a couple of Midwestern stay-at-home-moms to replicate a Japanese tea ceremony, the clear lack of investment in cultural education translates into harmful ignorance and perpetual stereotypes.

America’s dominant white society has gone to great lengths to erase POC from this country, all the while picking and choosing elements of POC culture for their own benefit. Whether intentional or not, online publishers isolate POC and encourage cultural appropriation through articles like “Quirkiest Baby Names in the U.S.” Popsugar Moms and Nameberry join the tsunami of whitewashing Internet media sources that has always — and will continue to — diminish the presence and hard work of POC.

About the Author: Jenny Shay is a hip hop dancer, V4 rock climber, and Berkeley Haas School of Business graduate. She lives in the SF Bay Area with her husband and two cats, Apple and Pear.

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