This past November, a video of a beating delivered by one Houston area teen on another went viral. In the video, a black teenager named Sharkeisha attacked another, sucker punching her and continuing to assault her despite friends and onlookers attempting to separate the two. It’s unclear what precipitated the attack. Part of the immensely depressing genre of viral street fight videos, the clip spread quickly throughout the internet through all the usual means. Sharkeisha quickly became a meme; a simple Google Image search reveals dozens or hundreds of jokes about her. She seems to have been, from my vantage, of especial interest to image boards and forums, where the persistence of internet anonymity leaves people free to traffic in racial humor free of consequence.
I don’t excuse the attack, but I do place it in a socioeconomic context that helps to explain it, and I further recognize that the young woman responsible for it is still a child. We recognize that children are not always yet able to make good decisions or to understand the consequences of their actions, and so we have a special legal system for them that hopefully avoids permanent damage to their lives. Now, though, with the video and her name both very public, the attack will follow her, one way or another, for the rest of her life. The Sharkeisha internet phenomenon is all bound up in the way our culture views, and fails to value, black women, with Sharkeisha perfectly symbolizing for a white audience the durable stereotype of black women as brutish, bitchy, and aggressive. But I’m also interested in what, exactly, caused this particular video to go viral, and what that says about white attitudes towards black names.
After all, there are tons of such videos out there. Depressingly, there are thousands of street fight videos online, and many of them feature young black women. Given the fixation on Sharkeisha’s name, I have to assume that’s the reason this particular clip has gotten so much attention. Certainly, based on how I’ve seen the video discussed, as well as on the many, many memes that have sprung up, the name Sharkeisha is taken to be inherently ridiculous. Sharkeisha is indeed a rare name, one I’ve never heard before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if her parents came up with it on their own. It involves the word “Shark,” which I suppose combines with the violence of the video in an unfortunate (but memorable) way. Is that why? I’m sure nobody finds the presence of the word “ant” in Anthony particularly ridiculous. But then, Anthony is a traditional name. So is that it? The novelty? Certainly, a desire to be novel in naming your child is a very widespread phenomenon. My friends who are parents are always expressing frustration when someone they know chooses the same name for their baby. I don’t deny that celebrities who name their children things like Apple are mocked, but I also don’t think that mockery has the same edge, the same naked class hatred, as a name like Sharkeisha.
I think Sharkeisha is taken to be inherently ridiculous because it’s seen as a black name, perceived as the naming conventions of black parents taken to extremes, and I think that black names are seen as uniquely ridiculous because of straightforward racism, because black people are seen as uniquely ridiculous. A child is born on New Year’s Day named So’Unique, the news runs it, it gets screencapped, and before she can talk or walk or really has a self, she becomes an object of internet ridicule. Kids named Shiloh and Knox demonstrate inventiveness in parents, idiosyncrasy at worst. So’Unique demonstrates absurdity.
Being born in 1981 and attending an elementary school that was about a third black, I grew up around many peers who had African or African-inspired names, names like Qualisha and Kamika and Kareem. The mid-80s was a period of racial optimism, in many ways, and a time when the black pride movement had become somewhat depoliticized but far more ubiquitous. I grew up among black children who, whether their parents were poor or middle class, were raised to feel pride in their African heritage, and who expressed that pride in their dress and the way they decorated their homes. But even then, it was clear that black names were not valued. I remember many times that substitute teachers would complain openly about their difficulty in pronouncing these “crazy” names. In my class one year, I had peers named Tamisha and Tashima. One sub, incredulous, asked them in front of the class if their parents had planned that out. I’m not quite sure what grade it was, but they couldn’t have been older than 7 or 8 or 9. Looking back, it’s a extraordinarily elegant way to degrade a pair of children, to mock their names, and with them, their identities. And it was also one of the countless little ways in which white kids like myself, whatever the good intentions of teachers and parents, were subtly indoctrinated to believe in black inferiority.
Like so much within racism, this disrespect towards black names carries with it the most important tool in an ostensibly post-racial but actually deeply racist culture: plausible deniability. That sub, I’m sure, did not think she was being racist. She was merely reacting to the oddity of those names! She was not ridiculing those children. She merely thought there was something uniquely funny about their names. Similarly, I have no doubt that the endless message board denizens who post the Sharkeisha memes would tell you that there’s nothing racist about what they’re doing. It’s not that I’m making fun of black people. I’m just making fun of this black person and her black parents and the black name they chose. Just like people making fun of long t-shirts or sagging pants are never making fun of black people, just black practices. Yes, there’s some part of my lizard brain that thinks its ridiculous for people to have their pants down around their ankles. But I know myself and my culture enough to know that those feelings can’t possibly be extracted from the racist society in which I live. At this point, though, I despair at most white people ever being willing to interrogate the way in which their good intentions are rendered moot by their culture, by their context. For far too many people, when it comes to race, only good intentions matter. I myself have been guilty of racism against my best intentions more times than I care to reveal.
Names have power. Alex Haley knew it when he wrote Roots. Malcolm X’s story, from Malcolm Little to Detroit Red to Malcolm X to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, is the story of how names can be a tool of either self-denial or self-ownership. For black Americans, black names have stakes, economic stakes. Research shows that resumes with black names are significantly (in both a statistical and practical sense) less likely to receive interview offers than than those without black names, even when the qualifications are identical. This is the way in which casual, personal disrespect and the racism of language bleeds into the economic and material, and how a culture that calls itself post-racial perpetuates the notion of black inferiority. Every Sharkeisha meme is not created or shared in a spirit of intentional or explicit racism, but every one contributes to a racist culture just the same.
1. All names are “made up.” All names were once new. Some names die out; some names are created. That’s how language works. To say that ridicule comes only to names that lack “history” is actually to betray ignorance of history. And not all new names are mocked.
2. Almost all names have denotative meaning in their home languages. To say that a name like So’Unique is inherently ridiculous because it includes identifiable words is a profoundly ignorant thing to say in a world of Smiths, Johnsons, Coopers, and the like.
3. If your name sounds Anglo or Asian or Indian or anything else, even if it’s “made up”– as opposed to all those not-made-up names out there, I guess– nobody bats an eyelash. If your name is Quatima, you’re mocked. To pretend that race has nothing to do with that is incredibly naive.