by LZ Granderson
(CNN) — I once met a mother who named her newborn daughter Kia Sophia.
Yes, like the car.
Apparently she had one and liked it so much that she wanted to be reminded of it each time she said her baby’s name.
As we stood there, I could tell this was something she was very proud of, and so I tried my best not to look embarrassed for her.
Besides, who was I to judge? I’m named after a useless, deadbeat father. At least the car had resale value.
One day, the new mom may regret her decision. One day, her daughter may stop talking to her, opting to let the therapy bills do the talking for her. Or maybe it’s the beginning of a new family tradition that lasts generations. Who knows? It’s different, but ultimately what we name our children is no one else’s business.
It certainly isn’t something the government should ever be involved with, which of course means it recently became something the government got involved with.
In an egregious abuse of power, Lu Ann Ballew, a child support magistrate serving the 4th Judicial District of Tennessee, recently took it upon herself to rename Jaleesa Martin’s child because according to Ballew, the name Martin originally chose “has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ.”
Now admittedly if you’re going to name your child “Messiah,” as Martin did, you should expect some raised brows. Maybe even from the father, though reportedly the case was brought to Ballew because of a dispute over the child’s last name, not the first.
“I was shocked,” Martin said. “I never intended on naming my son Messiah because it means God, and I didn’t think a judge could make me change my baby’s name because of her religious beliefs.”
She can — and did — but shouldn’t have. In all likelihood, Ballew’s ruling naming the child “Martin DeShawn McCullough” will be overturned in an appeal, and the fiasco will go down as a waste of taxpayer dollars. All of which serves as an uneasy reminder that separation of church and state is an ongoing process.
And that names matter.
While the judge overstepped her boundaries, she is right when she said the name Messiah “could put him at odds with a lot of people.”
A similar impulse might help explain why Heath Campbell, a New Jersey man who named one of his sons Adolf Hitler Campbell, does not have custody of his children.
“Blue Ivy” is going to be alright because her parents — Jay Z and Beyonce — are rich and famous. But for us regular folks, when you name your son something peculiar such as “Christ” — as 29 moms did in 2012 according to the Social Security Administration — you’re opening the kid up for unnecessary ridicule. And maybe even discrimination.
I spoke with a handful of HR professionals who told me off the record they would be hesitant to bring in someone with a controversial name such as “Messiah” if they were hiring for a conservative company. It is very similar to the impact of having an address based in a poor neighborhood on the resume.
And consider this: Researchers combing through U.S. Census Bureau records found that more than 100 years ago, the 20 most popular names were largely the same for blacks and whites, but after the 1970s, that number became much smaller.
And a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research did show that the “whiter” sounding names on a resume were 50% more likely to get a call back from an employer than a more ethnic sounding one. Another analysis by that group suggests the reason for this isn’t directly because of the applicant’s race but rather over the past 20 years, certain names have been linked to certain socio-economic status.
And we know other minorities such as Asians and Indians have been known to ditch their more ethnic name to blend in and/or avoid having constantly to tell people how to pronounce their name.
“John” may be a boring, but it is burdenless.
Then again, you can’t get more ethnic sounding than “Barack Hussein Obama.” and he has a pretty good job. Maybe there’s room for Messiahs and Kia Sophias at the top as well.
Editor’s note: LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor who writes a weekly column for CNN.com. The former Hechinger Institute Fellow has had his commentary recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. He is also a senior writer for ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.