The “Quvenzhané” Advantage: Don’t Be So Quick to Laugh at Wallis’ Name

Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

There’s a reason celebrities tend to pick uncommon names for their kids. Contrary to the Oscar voter who said of Best Actress nominee Quvenzhané Wallis: “Her
parents really put her in a hole with that name,” unconventional monikers can lend a significant advantage.

Admitting his own “slightly unusual first name” has been a professional boon, writer Teddy Wayne suggests, in a recent New York Times article, that our culture expects artists to have unpredictable names. It’s the reason many recording artists adopt fake names (Jay-Z and Lady Gaga anyone?), and why there is an idea of what a “writerly name” is.

Kanye at the Martin Margiela fashion show in January. (AP Photo/Zacharie Scheurer)

Wayne specifically refers to a 1983 report by Guilford College psychology professor Richard Zweigenhaft that finds “one of the benefits of having an unusual name for women could be a greater likelihood of creativity.” He points to another interesting finding in Zweigenhaft’s study: “Female college students with unusual names scored higher on 17 of 18 traits on the California Psychological Inventory, in areas such as ‘Psychological Mindedness’ and ‘Self-Acceptance’”—which may explain Wallis’ admirable self-possession at such a young age.

Non-celebrity parents are slowly embracing the unusual name trend. CNN reported “Sookie” (as in HBO’s True Blood heroine “Sookie Stackhouse”) and “Eithne”
among the Top 10 baby girl names searched on in 2012. Meanwhile “Brooklyn” (also the name of Victoria “Posh Spice” Beckham’s eldest son) broke the top 30 on

But in spite of the growing trend toward outlier names, many African Americans still experience disadvantages associated with having so-called “black names”—
which is likely what the anonymous Oscar voter was getting at with his rude remark about Quvenzhané’s name. Endless studies show blacks with names that don’t sound stereotypically white “have a worse life outcome than a woman named Molly or a man named Jake,” as bestselling book Freakonomics reported. However, the reasons for this phenomenon have less to do with the name than economic circumstances, which remain dire for millions of African Americans.

The neighborhood you live in and your parents’ education level, are among the factors that determine future success more reliably than a name. Black unemployment was last reported at 13.8 percent — almost double that of the national unemployment rate — while the wealth gap between whites and blacks has grown alarmingly wide according to a recent Brandeis University study.

Clearly, having a Barack in the highest political office in America, an Oprah among the wealthiest people in the world, and a list of global stars that includes a Kanye, isn’t enough to flip centuries of discriminatory policy and racist practices directed against blacks. That said, unusual names are not a “hole,” but a platform that can be leveraged to unforgettable success. We have no clue what that Oscar voter’s name is as he opted for anonymity, but while this grown man was dissing Wallis, the nine-year-old was making history—and isn’t that what making a name for yourself is really about?

Any unusual names that you particularly like? Please share in the comments.

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of the novel Powder Necklace and founder of the blog People Who Write. Follow her on Twitter @nanaekua.

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