When I was fresh out of college at the height of a minor recession, I started cold-calling for jobs. I would do well during the initial screening--the phone interview. But when the ultra-friendly person at the other end of the line would ask my name to schedule a face-to-face, I would let the bomb drop--that foreign name--and there would be a long moment in which nothing was said, a moment when a huge cloud hovered up above what was once a pleasant conversation. I knew I was sunk.
I'm over it now--that feeling of suffocating in quicksand. But recently, this trauma of my early career resurfaced to haunt me. Raven-Symoné, the young Cosby actress, did something that has become so familiar it is now a signature part of her so-called celebrity: she put her foot in her mouth.
What is it she has done this time? Well, she has somehow managed to insult her own people with this little chestnut about a very sensitive topic that has enjoyed a resurgence of coverage in the news: Names. "I'm not about to hire you if your name is 'Watermelondrea'. It's just not gonna happen!" This, she opined on the popular morning talk show The View.
I'm not going to discuss how there are memes going around--memes that existed even before this comment--that said black people would trade Raven Symone for Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who pretended to be black. I'm not going to point out that even her father, a man who fostered her rise from child star to talking head, basically condemned her statements. Rather, I want to focus on the sincerity of her statements--the way that they speak some crumb of truth to the world we live in--no matter how sad, no matter how pitiful.
I am not defending her crazy. Neither am I defending her racism. But crazy and racism are interesting things, not unlike two-headed creatures that live in the wasteland of a nuclear holocaust--a Chernobyl of the spirit--that leave you empty: they are the fall-out of trauma and absolutely worthy of some attention.
What is special about her verbal meltdown? There is an element of extreme self-loathing that sits--a spider in a cobweb--that sits at the center of it. First, there is the obvious: the attack against names like Watermelondria--it is clearly a dig at the stereotype of blacks and the penchant for that juicy gourd. And it self-consciously trades upon the specter of shuffling minstrelsy that black people have tried to put behind them.
Critics have been quick to point out that Raven-Symoné herself has one of those outlandish Watermelondria names--one of those names that don't follow the conventions of orthography or phonetics. That silent accent mark at the end is just the tip of the iceberg--purely gratuitous. And so she is a hypocrite.
Hypocrisy aside, Raven's apology is telling. She writes that she herself has been a victim of discrimination all her life, pointing out that it has affected her deeply. (It is ironic that she relates this painful fact with the kind of disregard for the conventions of spelling, usage, grammar, punctuation and capitalization that she herself criticizes, but this is beside the point.)
I have been denied many jobs because of my skin color, body size, and age. Each time I was rejected, my self esteem was negatively effected, so i empathize with those who feel victimized by what I said. We would hope that when it comes to hiring, our names, physical appearance, sexual orientation, and age would never outweigh our qualifications, but often times, they do, thats the truth and it sucks.
In other words, her name itself might have been a double-edged sword--opening doors and closing them in the casting room. Perhaps it made her sound too ethnic. Perhaps it didn't reach a certain demographic.
It is a common experience that people who have been abused abuse in the same way back--repeating the abuse. Yet we don't blame the children who have been molested by groping priests. And we achieve a certain kind of understanding, if not acceptance, for people who have been slapped around by parents who should know better, even if it is a terrible shame that they continue that slapping-around on people who are beneath them.
Raven has a job--one that has allowed her to rise into the rank of job-creator. But there are many blacks and many immigrants who find it difficult to gain a footing in the terrain of employment, especially in this economic climate--a climate that is not unlike the time when I graduated college when many of our citizens were still trying to pull themselves out of that quicksand of recession. Scientific studies have shown that people who have quirky ethnic names just don't get hired. People with the exact same academic and career credentials don't get the time of day when paper pushers sift through a pile of resumes and alight upon that one shiny gem to present to superiors.
This is a matter of established fact--one that is sad, given the reality that we live not only in a multicultural society but, also, a society of immigrant laborers: Patels and Nguyens, Aslams and Hernandez's--these are just a few of those outlandish names that move beyond the narrow scope of the watermelon world that this self-loathing one-time actress had in her cross-hairs.
This is a long way of saying that the take-away from Raven-Symoné's statement is to indeed agree with her own self-assessment that she is a victim--a broken, twisted soul that has suffered some kind of trauma. And our responsibility to her is not to rail against someone who returns to the site of trauma to spew her nuclear waste. Rather, it is to at least switch off the boob tube and turn away from the image of a damaged girl, and ask ourselves the more important question: how can we create a world where names--names of all sorts--are acceptable everywhere. Otherwise, we might continue to perpetrate and perpetuate generations upon generations of Raven-types. And we all know that nuclear waste never disappears. It only has a half-life that lingers on.