Why Naming a Child Can Be Complicated for Black Parents
Photo: Gift Habeshaw / Unsplash

Why Naming a Child Can Be Complicated for Black Parents

Thanks for everything, systemic racism

What’s in a name? Some seem to believe that your name will spell out your entire life, each letter giving meaning to some future challenge or triumph. They believe in the meaning of every name and say things like “You look like a John.” I’m guilty of doing the same with people that I just met. “Kate? No, you look more like an Agatha.” And, maybe, there’s some truth to it.

My name is Jayson, a familiar yet confusing-for-the-common-idiot variation of the more traditional spelling, Jason. My name has Greek roots and means “healer.” I thought about this a lot as a child. Healer. Do I heal people? Am I blessed with otherworldly abilities, like Wolverine from the X-Men or pretty much any of the characters from Vampire Diaries? I never really got to the bottom of it, and my numerous Google searches led me nowhere. Nevertheless, I became a social worker. Do with that what you will.

My mother named me Jayson based on somewhat of a coin toss. She always liked the names Jayson or Johnathan and couldn’t decide. She left the choice to her brothers. One would get to choose the name, and I’d receive the first name of the other as my middle name. Thus, her older brother chose Jayson, and I received the middle name of the younger brother, Kristopher. (In all actuality, my uncle’s name is spelled with a "c," but my mother wanted me to be different. That’s also the reason she added the "y" to my first name—to be unique.)

One day, our little girl will fill out college and job applications and have her name out in the world... What opportunities will she miss out on because of racism, stereotypes, and biases?

Unbeknownst to my mother, in the 33 years since my birth, there would be millions of kids named with that variation, the "y" added to the center of Jason, and they too would undoubtedly see people give their name a double-take when reading it from a piece of paper.

I don’t know why Jayson is so difficult for some people, but it is. My first-grade teacher—let’s call her Ms. Happy—found it challenging. I’m not sure if it was the spelling, my prominent and obviously disconcerting Blackness, or some kind of teacher-sensitivity and diversity training that she sat through, but we spent what felt like 10 minutes just repeating my name in different dialects.

“Say it again,” she said.


Oh, like Ja-ee-son.”

“No, just Jayson.

“Jah-son. The Y is silent?”

“No,” I repeated, confused. You say it. It’s just Jayson.”

“Oh, I got it. Jay-sin.”


“Hmm, how do you say it where you’re from.”

For the sake of the story, you should know I’m from Brooklyn. So, you take how confused you are right now, triple it, and imagine that level of perplexity strewn across my five-year-old face.

“No, it’s like Jason without a "y." It’s the same.”

“Oh… Are you sure?”

I was sure, but that wasn’t the last time. I’ve had many people mispronounce and down-right butcher my name as if it were a Thanksgiving ham. The worst part was whenever someone found out that my name is Jayson Jones.

“So, J.J.? Do people call you J.J.? I bet you get that a lot, huh?”

“Only from children and fools,” I’d say.

Or, “Like J.J. from Good Times? Dy-no-Mite! Remember that show?

“No, I’m not that old.”

Or, my favorite: “Jay Jay the Jet Plane!”

“That’s Mr. Jones to you.”

Ironically, my mom wanted me to have a name that would be widely accepted. She wanted a name that didn’t scream “Blackie” on a college or job application. She wanted people to judge me based on my merit and not on whether my name ended in “-shaun,” or “-reek.” This practice is common in the Caribbean, where you’d have your public name and your “home name.” Some say it’s assimilation; others think of it as a form of survival against racism. Truly, it’s both, and it’s why naming my daughter is somewhat of a challenge.

For years, my wife and I have had a name in mind. We’ve thought if we ever had a little girl, that would be her name. It’s distinctive, has a strong meaning, and is beautiful. There’s only one catch, it’s Spanish, and neither of us is of Spanish, Hispanic, or Latinx origins. At least not far back enough for people to care. When we’ve said the name to others, we’ve been greeted by quizzical looks and the obligatory “that’s nice,” coupled with a heavy dose of side-eye.

People wonder why we won’t name her whatever they believe is a “Black name” or something White people will understand. The radical in me thinks “f**k what people think,” but the burgeoning parent in me begs to reconsider. One day, our little girl will fill out college and job applications and have her name out in the world, representing her before she ever has a chance to meet anyone. What will they think about her name? What opportunities will she miss out on because of racism, stereotypes, and biases? In what ways will she be denied? I’d like to say that we’d be more advanced by then, but progress is slow, and those bigoted boomers are too stubborn to die. So, what does the name mean for her?

It’s a conversation my wife and I continue to have, even with just a few weeks to go before our little one’s arrival. With our current thinking, she’ll be named [insert common Latina name] Rodriguez-Jones. My wife’s last name is Rodriguez, and while I’ve been asked countless times if she’s Latina or speaks Spanish—she is not and only knows Spanish because of New York City public schools. When asked how she got the name, I remind people that:

a) I didn’t make her, so asking how she got her name is dumb and

b) Slavery.

I’m often met with shocked looks, which is an opportunity for me to double down.

“What’s wrong? My name is Jones, and according to 23andMe, I’m originally descended from Nigeria and Ghana. Jones isn’t exactly a common name in those countries, so you know what’s up.”

Again, looks of dismay.

Jokes aside, a lot is riding on her name, and if Google is correct, it’ll predict everything she’ll ever do and everything she’ll ever be.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of Jayson Kristopher Jones' work on Medium.

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