Mocking Black Names in Covina: How “Liberal” are Our Youth?

by Guest Contributor Joe R. Feagin, originally published at Racism Review


There seems to be no end to mocking of the language and speech of people of color by whites. A Los Angeles Times article recounts some mocking of the names of black high school students, likely from a white high school student:

Administrators at Charter Oak High School in Covina are investigating how a student on the yearbook staff was able to get fake names for Black Student Union members, including “Tay Tay Shaniqua,” “Crisphy Nanos” and “Laquan White,” into the published yearbook.

Beyond this hateful racist mocking there are deeper issues. Whites and some others do not seem to understand that many working-class and middle-class black parents provide their children with nontraditional first names to provide them with something special and distinctive–and not with the “white” first names that are commonplace in society. (Adia has made this point to me in discussion.) Such naming is often a type of resistance to whiteness and white folkways. Historically, whites have done a lot of mocking of the language and speech of all Americans of color–African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and others—and name mocking in the Covina case seems in this tradition of negative racial framing of Americans of color. Mock Spanish and mock Black English seem to be esp. popular these days, including on the Internet. There are many websites mocking the speech of other Americans of color. Whites often say such mocking is “just joking,” but as we have known since Freud, racist joking is often far more than joking.

In movies, on television, in newspaper and magazine columns, and on the Internet whites, including well-educated whites, are among those who mock or ridicule black language and behavior. In Hollywood films the “good guys” often speak prestige versions of the English language, while those portrayed as “bad guys,” including black Americans and other Americans of color, often speak some negatively stigmatized version of English

Anthropologist Jane Hill has studied mock Spanish, which is common in the US. Otherwise monolingual whites use made-up terms such as “no problemo,” “el cheapo,” and “hasty banana,” and phrases like “hasta la vista, baby.” Mock Spanish is on billboards and in movies, gift shops, and boardrooms. Racialized ridicule of language, speech, and naming reveals an underlying stereotyping of people of color among many whites who might reject more openly racist practices.

The Covina school officials have not yet comprehended fully the damage done to the Black students and have weakly responded in regard to remedies, so far at least:

Calling the incident a “regrettable mistake,” Clint Harwick, superintendent of the Charter Oak Unified School District, said Friday that school officials had spoken to the student believed to be responsible…. The school has made stickers with the correct names available for students wishing to cover over the false names. [Principal] Wiard said the school was also considering replacing the entire page because so many names, not just those of BSU members, were incorrect.

However, black parents see this as far too little too late:

[Toi] Jackson, who said the school was insensitive to her daughter and the other club members, said she expected the school to take “significant” measures to correct the yearbooks and discipline any responsible student. But more than anything, she said, she hoped everyone in the community could learn from this incident. “No one wants their character to be attached to something negative for nothing, for being African American,” she said. “All I know is, at the end of the day, it’s all wrong. It affects us, and it affects my child.”

Ridicule of African American and Latino (or other Americans of color) names and language or accent is usually racist because it has meaning only if one knows the underlying racist stereotypes and images. While it may appear to some relatively harmless, social science research shows that such mocking enables whites to support traditional hierarchies of racial privilege without seeming to be racist in the old-fashioned, blatant sense. Researcher Rosina Lippi-Green has noted, such mocking shows a “general unwillingness to accept the speakers of that language and the social choices they have made as viable and functional…. We are ashamed of them, and because they are part of us, we are ashamed of ourselves.” Language mocking and subordination are not about standards for speaking as much as about determining that some people are not worth listening to and treating as equals.

Texas college student blogger LeftofCollegeStation, who called my attention to this now national story (thanks!), has a good comment on local action that should be taken:

This becomes an example to white students of race relations, and the way in which the school administrators handle the situation will give the students a perception of what is acceptable. This is absolutely giving white students the wrong impression. It is giving the message that if something offensive is done to a person of another race that pacification and appeasement are acceptable. That the only yearbooks that will be changed are the yearbooks of the students that are members of the BSU sends this message. Charter Oak High School like many institutions in America is going to ignore an opportunity to talk about race in a constructive way. This incident will be brushed aside, and called an “isolated incident.” However, as many of the people in the community and in the country know, this was not an isolated incident. Racism happens every day in the hallways of our schools, in the offices where we work, and on television that we watch.

Well said. Dear readers, what do you make of this incident? Have you heard of similar mocking?