6 Words: 'My Name Is Jamaal ... I'm White'
NPR continues a series of conversations from The Race Card Project, in which thousands of people have submitted their thoughts on race and cultural identity in six words.
People make a lot of assumptions based on a name alone.
Jamaal Allan, a high school teacher in Des Moines, Iowa, should know. To the surprise of many who have only seen his name, Allan is white. And that's taken him on a lifelong odyssey of racial encounters.
Those experiences prompted him to share his six words with The Race Card Project: "My name is Jamaal ... I'm white."
Allan grew up in southern Oregon, in a house on 18 acres with a commune on one side and a llama ranch on the other.
The origins of his name weren't that remarkable, Allan tells NPR Special Correspondent Michele Norris.
"My parents decided they wanted less traditional names for their children. ... My dad was a Los Angeles Lakers fan and they had had a player named Jamaal Wilkes, and that name kind of came up," he says.
His mother — who was pregnant with Allan's sister at the time — fell in love with the sound of the name. Their parents named his sister Madera, and they named their son Jamaal — "just to spice things up a bit, I guess," he says.
"Growing up I never thought twice about my name (of course I was next door to a commune, hanging out with Orly, Oshia, Lark Song, River Rocks, Sky Blue, and more than one Rainbow).
"In a high school soccer game I was called 'a white man with a [horrific racial expletive deleted] name.'
"In January of 2002 I flew to London. I was randomly selected for additional passenger screening. It was me, Muhammad, Abdul, Tariq, and an old white haired lady named Jenny Smith. Seriously. I'm not sure what was faster, Jenny Smith's pat down or the dropping of the TSA agent's face when I responded to the name Jamaal."
Jamaal means "beauty" in Arabic.
"Learning the meaning behind it and, well, the beauty that comes in the sound of the name, I like that quite a bit," Allan says.
It's also a name that give him an unusual perspective on questions of identity, race and cultural stereotypes.
When he goes out in Des Moines for drinks with friends who are black, the waitress or bartender often hands his debit card to someone else — someone black.
"They're making an assumption based on the name on the card and not paying attention to who handed it to them," Allan says. "They say, 'Jamaal, oh that must be the black guy sitting here.' "
'We Could Use Some Diversity Here'
These kinds of assumptions also spill over into his professional life as a teacher.
"People usually don't bring it up on a first day, but after I've developed a rapport with the students and they feel comfortable having open conversations, they'll say, 'You know, when class started I thought you were going to be black,' " Allan says.
And he uses that as a jumping-off point for more questions: Why you would assume that and what did that mean? And were you disappointed? What were your thoughts when you actually saw me?
The question of someone's name, particularly if it has ethnic overtones, can have real consequence. One study found that after responding to 1,300 classified ads, applicants with black-sounding names were 50 percent less likely to get a callback than white-sounding names with comparable resumes.
But the opposite was at work in Allan's case. The principal who hired him told him he was lucky to get the job because they hadn't been planning to take another student teacher. Then Allan's application showed up.
"They scanned through it ... and they saw someone named Jamaal who played basketball, listed Muhammad Ali among his heroes and inspirations, and thought, 'We could use some diversity here, so let's bring this guy on, I think he'd be good for some of our younger minority male students,'" he says. "And, well, then I showed up."
If someone argued that the only reason Jamaal Allan got the job was affirmative action — well, the joke would be on them.
The school got diversity with Allan, but not necessarily the kind they thought. Not many people can say they grew up between a commune and a llama ranch.
"They said we need more diversity, we need someone who resonates well and connects with some of the young male students here," Allan says. "It may not have been because of how I look, but through actions, that was exactly what they got."
On Allan's first day of work, he showed up at school and introduced himself to one of the secretaries.
"And she said, 'Oh, you're Jamaal, I expected you were going to be' — and there was a very long, very pregnant pause," Allan recalls. "And the word she came up with was 'taller.' "
"I just sort of chuckled and said, 'Yeah, I get reactions like that a lot.' "
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's explore what's in a name. We'll do it as part of The Race Card Project, where six-word stories about race and cultural identity start compelling conversations. We're going to hear six words of a Des Moines, Iowa high school teacher whose name causes people to make assumptions.
JAMAAL ALLAN: My name is Jamaal. I'm white.
INSKEEP: My name is Jamaal. I'm white. Jamaal Allen sent those six words to the Race Card Project and said his name has led to a lifetime of racial encounters. He once wrote a blog post about it, and here's an excerpt.
ALLAN: (Reading) Growing up, I never thought twice about my name. Of course, I was next door to a commune, hanging out with Orly, Oshia, Lark Song, River Rocks, Sky Blue and more than one Rainbow. In a high school soccer game, I was called a white man with a, well, horrific-racial-expletive-deleted name. In January of 2002, I flew to London. I was randomly selected for additional passenger screening. It was me, Mohammed, Abdul, Tariq and an old white-haired lady named Jenny Smith - seriously. I'm not sure what was faster, Jenny Smith's pat down or the dropping of the TSA agent's face when I responded to the name Jamaal.
INSKEEP: Wow. Jamaal Allan spoke with NPR's Michele Norris, who runs The Race Card Project.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Why don't we begin at the beginning?
NORRIS: How did you get the name Jamaal?
ALLAN: The story behind it is really not that remarkable. There's no family relation or anything like that. My parents kind of decided they wanted less traditional names for their children. Both of them go by nicknames, essentially, as their legal names now. My mother's name was Kathleen (ph). She goes by Kat (ph). My father's name was Terry (ph), and he goes by just his initials, T.A. My dad was a Los Angeles Lakers fan. And they had had a player named Jamaal Wilkes. And that name sort of came up. My mom heard the name, and this was actually when she was pregnant with my sister. I don't think they knew the gender yet, but she just fell in love with the sound of the name and sort of picked it. So it was tabbed for me, you know, two to three years before I was even born. So I have an older sister whose name is Madera, and my name's Jamaal, just to spice things up a bit, I guess.
NORRIS: And you grew up in Oregon?
ALLAN: I did. I grew up in southern Oregon. So our house, our little 18 acres, was between a commune on one side and on the other side was a llama ranch. So it was a very beautiful nature area.
NORRIS: Jamaal - do you know what the word means?
ALLAN: It actually means beauty in Arabic, which sounds very conceited when I say that out loud.
NORRIS: Well, if you're going to own your name, that's a nice way to put a handle on it.
ALLAN: That's right. And actually, you know, learning the meaning behind it and the sort of, well, beauty that comes in the sound of the name - I like that quite a bit.
NORRIS: You know, at The Race Card Project, we collect stories about race and cultural identity. And it sounds like your name has catapulted you into a world where you are sort of always dealing with questions of identity and race and cultural stereotypes because of the name that you sign - the name that you bear.
ALLAN: Absolutely. I live in Des Moines, Iowa now. And two of the last three times I've gone out to a restaurant or out for drinks with any friends who are black, my friend has been handed my debit card by the waitress or by the bartender sort of making an assumption based on the name on the card rather than paying attention to who handed it to them. They say, oh, Jamaal. That must be the black guy sitting here.
NORRIS: So do you let this roll off your shoulder, or does it give you an opportunity to explore something that's not just an irritant, but maybe gives your life, in some ways, deeper insight or deeper meaning? I mean, you're teacher. And so I wonder if there are all kinds of teachable moments all around your life because of this.
NORRIS: Well, sort of both, I would suppose. I mean, the school that I teach at is relatively diverse. When class starts - people usually don't bring it up on a first day. But after I've sort of developed a rapport with the students and they feel comfortable having kind of open conversations, they'll say, you know, when class started, I thought you were going to be black. And several times there's been decent conversations about, you know, well, why would you assume that, and what did that mean? And were you disappointed? Were you - you know, what were your thoughts when you actually saw me?
NORRIS: Well, that's a heck of an icebreaker, isn't it? You can go deep rather fast.
ALLAN: Yeah, and that's a positive thing, I suppose.
NORRIS: The question of someone's name, particularly if it has ethnic overtones, can have real consequences. There have been studies that find that black-sounding names can be an impediment to getting a job. After responding to 1,300 classified ads, the authors of one particular study found that black-sounding names were 50 percent less likely to get a call back than white-sounding names with comparable resumes.
ALLAN: That's a sort of disturbing statistic.
NORRIS: The interesting thing is it seems like it worked the opposite way for you.
ALLAN: Yeah. The principal who hired me mentioned, you know, hey, you're pretty lucky to get a job. They hadn't been planning on taking another student teacher because it was a relatively small building. And then my application showed up, and they scanned through it, the administrative team. And they saw someone named Jamaal who played basketball, listed Muhammad Ali among his heroes and inspirations and thought, you know, we could use some diversity in our staff, so let's bring this guy on. I think he'd be, you know, good for some of our younger minority male students. And, well, then I showed up.
NORRIS: And what happened when you showed up?
ALLAN: Well, nothing too strange. I mean, I did have an interesting conversation with one of the secretaries when, you know, you check in on the first day and introduce yourself to get your little ID badge. And, you know, I said, I'm Jamaal Allan. I'll be student teaching. She said, oh, you're Jamaal. Oh, I expected you were going to be - and there was a very long, very pregnant pause. And the word she came up with was taller, which was interesting because I am relatively short. I'm about 5-foot-9, but that seemed like a strange response. So I just sort of chuckled and said, yeah, I get reactions like that a lot.
NORRIS: On one hand, someone might look at that and say, well, gosh, that's affirmative action right there. That's how he got the job. You know, the joke's on them. And someone else might look at that and say, well, he got diversity but not the kind that he was expecting - because of your name and your experience and growing up between a commune and a llama farm. Not many people can claim that as part of their background, can they?
ALLAN: Right. You know, I think either viewpoint could potentially be valid. But you're absolutely right. They said, well, we need more diversity. We need someone who resonates well and can connect with some of the, you know, young male students here. And, you know, it may not have been because of how I look, but that was exactly what they got.
INSKEEP: Jamaal Allan speaking with NPR's Michele Norris for The Race Card Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.