Black people call out experiences of discrimination because of their unique names

by Sherri Kolade

LaNeisha Gunn
E’yandra Otis

“The story beneath your name can’t be contained beneath the tide, so sisters, let them rise and take their rightful places on your applications and business cards, desk placards, and uniforms until one day (our) names become the norm. But for right now, we’re special you see, and there ain’t another girl in the world with a name like you or me.”

That 2012 poem, “To All the Little Black Girls with Big Names” (dedicated to Quvenzhane’ Wallis) was written by Sha’Condria “iCon” Sibley.

Although written to Black women it can easily apply to Black men, too, with cultural and unique names. All the same, it encapsulates how several Black business professionals feel when their names are mispronounced time and time again.

The Michigan Chronicle spoke with some area residents who shared how their names helped shape who they are despite facing stigma and discrimination. For clarity, the interviewees’ names are published as they are spelled and how it sounds phonetically in parentheses.

Her Name is Dajnae (pronounced: Dayshunay)

Detroit native Dajnae Hayes, 28, of Southgate, works for a Detroit-based mortgage company and has stories to tell.

From dealing with people at past jobs who didn’t even try to learn how to pronounce her name, to her resorting to nicknames like Daj, she’s experienced the ups and downs of her name, which originates from the French spelling of déjeuner, meaning lunch.

“I feel like [it’s] perfect for me because I’m eating all the time,” she said laughing, and adding that everyone just calls her Daj. “At this point, I would just rather you give me a nickname,” she said, adding that the more people pronounce her name wrong she feels it’s disrespectful. “To me, it’s not that hard.”

Hayes, who said hadn’t met anyone else with her same name until high school, said that her name holds special significance, especially because her father wanted all of his children to be started with the letter “D.”

Hayes said that when people hear her name, they don’t know what they are going to get.

“Some people think [I’m] going to be ratchet and ghetto when they speak to me,” she said, adding that she carries herself a certain way to get the respect she gets. ”I know because of how I run my business. Otherwise, they would treat me and disrespect me, even more, when it comes to my name.”

His Name is E’yandra (pronounced: Ndray)

Detroit resident E’yandra Otis, 38, plans to leave a legacy for his children to carry as they navigate through life long after he’s gone. Otis, who named his son after him, said that he wanted to be like a “king” and have his son continue the tradition of his unique name like he is now.

“He will be able to understand his name a lot more,” he said.

Otis, who works as the community relations representative for Detroit City Councilman Roy McCalister, said that he has been in this position for over two years and previously he has worked at plants, restaurants and the like.

Throughout his life, he has explained his name, defended his name, and now he is semi-over it.

“I’ve gotten to the point now where I get tired trying to explain my name over and over and over,” he said, adding that “people make it harder than what it is… it’s been a trip.”

Otis said that his mother named him partially after a soap opera character who “she was in love with.”

“They gave her [an] epidural and here I came with that name,” he said, adding that a portion of his name means “warrior” or something along those lines.

“I’ve tried to get many definitions from it but at some point, what the heck, my name is what it is,” he said, adding that he has experienced a lot of prejudice because of his name, including being denied for a credit card after he and his white friend (with a similar credit score) applied at the same time. His friend received a credit card offer while he did not.

But he continues on and is looking forward to keep shining where he’s at — and encourages others to do the same.

“Nobody can take something given to you — I was blessed with my name,” he said, adding that his son caught that lesson early while in school when people couldn’t get his (or Otis’s name right). “This is still my name — you don’t have the privilege to remake my name to fit what your tongue can say.”

Her Name is LaNeisha (pronounced: Laneesha)

LaNeisha Gunn, diversity recruitment and partnerships manager at Novi-based HARMAN International (headquartered in Stamford, Conn.) works to help provide a more diverse, equitable and inclusive environment at her job.

Gunn’s perceived fate was already talked about, however, from people who couldn’t fathom that she would make it to where she is today – all because of her name.

“I’ll never forget my mom telling a story of how she worked in automotive for GM for many years in skilled trades and she was pregnant with me [in 1988] … some of the guys at work asked her what they are going to name [me],” Gunn said, adding that when her mother told them, some were vocal about their opposition. “He said she’s never going to get a job; why would you name her that? You’re not setting her up for success.”

She added that a Black man told her mother that.

Gunn, the youngest of five sisters, was named after a mixture of their names; her grandmother and mother named her, too, and her mother instilled in her to be proud of her name. From attending a predominately white school and lowercasing the “N” in her name (to stop people from asking questions about why it’s capitalized) to getting jokes about her name being Sha Nay Nay – she grew proud of her name and is equally proud of the professional woman she’s become.

“I had to know my name is my name,” she said. “When you see LaNeisha Gunn you are going to remember her.”

Contact Staff Writer Sherri Kolade with story ideas at skolade@michronicle.com.

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