Listen to Jamaal’s story on NPR’s Morning Edition
What’s in a Name?
The Poetry Question-Discovering the Relevance of Words
As a white male, a majority of majorities, I can’t talk about race. I’m not qualified to.
Race isn’t an issue for me, right? Life is easy; things are handed to me. My cup runneth over and my invisible knapsack is packed.
But isn’t hiding behind the privilege of my race just as debilitating as hiding behind the stereotypes of another? Isn’t an implied guilt based on race a form of racism?
So tell me again how great it is to be white as I reapply my sunscreen, struggle to execute even the most basic two-step, and consistently wind up on the wrong side of history…
My personal experiences with race can really only be boiled down to two stereotypes. One, the aforementioned white privilege I was granted at birth, and two, my name.
What could a name possibly have to do with race? Good question. What’s in a name? Better question.
Whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, our names are our first labels. More than ever, in today’s world, our names are our representatives we send forward to meet people prior to face to face- whether by email, text message, an electronic application, match dot com, or the increasingly rare phone call. What’s in a name? A lot.
My name is Jamaal; I’m white.
Growing up I never thought twice about my name (of course I was next door to a commune, hanging out with Orly, Oshia, Lark Song, River Rocks, Sky Blue, and more than one Rainbow).
In a high school soccer game I was called “a white man with a [horrific racial expletive deleted] name”.
In January of 2002 I flew to London. I was randomly selected for additional passenger screening. It was me, Muhammad, Abdul, Tariq, and an old white haired lady named Jenny Smith. Seriously. I’m not sure what was faster, Jenny Smith’s pat down or the dropping of the TSA agent’s face when I responded to the name Jamaal.
When I went to a time share presentation in Vegas (just to tell them no and get my free show tickets of course), the randomly selected sales agent who came calling my name looked was a bald version of Cedric the Entertainer in a white suit, Versace sunglasses, and alligator shoes.
The most frequently asked question is, “how did you get the name Jamaal?” I usually say something about a Ouija board or a heated game of Boggle that put my mother into labor. The letters just sort of fell randomly in that order. “How did you get the name Jamaal?” Well, it all started many years ago before the Coyote howled at the moon…
I got my name the same way you did. Somewhere between birth and leaving the hospital my parents wrote it on my birth certificate.
I know what people want to say. They want to stammer like the South African from Lethal Weapon 2 and say, “but… but… but… you’re WHITE.”
But they don’t.
Instead they say things like, “I never would’ve guessed your name was Jamaal.” Really, are you frequently good at guessing people’s names?
“You don’t look like a Jamaal.” And how exactly does one look like a name? Unless your name is Rose and you are overly-rubicund it’s highly unlikely you look like your name either. What if I smile larger, now do I look like a Jamaal or is this more of a Derek smile? How does a Walter express confusion, should I raise my eyebrow higher?
When people have seen my name before they’ve seen my face, I get “OH – you’re Jamaal.” Yes, I am, and the African American behind me is Chris.
It is not uncommon for people to follow up with, “I expected you to be –”and then there’s a pause; a sudden realization they are on the verge of sounding racist. There’s a look—not quite ‘deer in the headlights’, but it is a definite freeze. What to say next? I’ve heard several: taller, older, different (usually accompanied with an uncomfortable chuckle).
Very few people have the courage to say darker.
Several people have told me that Jamaal is a black name. It’s not. It’s an Arabic name. Arabic is a language, not a color.
Halfway through my first year teaching, the principal who had hired me confided that I was lucky to have gotten the job. I agreed, I had watched a majority of my classmates from grad school go from job fair to job fair and interview to interview, whereas I had been able to parlay my student-teaching directly into a job in the same school with only one interview.
That wasn’t what he meant. They had not been planning to take another student-teacher when my application showed up. But, in his words, as he scanned through it and saw a Jamaal who plays basketball and counts Muhammad Ali among his heroes he thought, we could use a little diversity.
Sorry to disappoint you.
So, no, as a white man, a majority of majorities, from a small rural town in Southern Oregon with a high school of around 400 and two black and two Hispanic families, I don’t know a lot about race. I do, however, know a little about stereotyping.
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