What it's like to be a white woman named LaKiesha

Updated 5:35 AM ET, Sat June 15, 2019

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(CNN)When you're a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman named LaKiesha, life can get complicated.

Strangers burst out laughing when you tell them your name. Puzzled white people ask what your parents were thinking. Black people wonder if you're trying to play a bad joke.
It can be exhausting constantly explaining yourself to white people, even though you're white.
"At least one to three times a week, someone is saying something about my name," says LaKiesha Francis, a 28-year-old bartender who lives in a small town in western Ohio. "It kind of gets old."
We hear a lot about what are known as "black-sounding" names these days. Comics make fun of names like "D'Brickashaw Ferguson" or "Tyrasciuses." Professors conduct studies on the success rate for job applicants with names like "Jamal." Online commentators warn black parents not to give their babies names like "Keisha," while others simply confess -- as one white man did -- "I truly don't get the black name thing."
Comic duo Key & Peele lampooned creative black names in their "East/West College Bowl" clips.
But hardly any attention is paid to people like Francis and other white folks with distinctively black names.
    They are those rare white people who can credibly say, "I'll be black for a minute." Francis says she's glimpsed racial stereotyping, what it's like to face discrimination and even a degree of acceptance from black people that she may have otherwise never known.
    What she has discovered is that the names of Americans are as segregated as many of their lives. There are names that seem traditionally reserved for whites only, such as Molly, Tanner and Connor. And names favored by black parents, such as Aliyah, DeShawn and Kiara. Add into that mix names that are traditionally Asian, Latino or, say, Muslim.
    But when you move through life with a name that violates those racial and ethnic boundaries, Francis has found that people will often treat you as an imposter.
    "The first thing they'll say is, 'That's not your name,' or, 'That's not a name that suits you,'" she says. "If I go to a bar, they'll say, 'That's not your name. Let me see your ID.'"

    How LaKiesha got her name

    Francis didn't know much about the baggage attached to her name where she grew up, and still lives: Pitsburg, Ohio. She describes it as a "super-quiet" village of more than 300 people, virtually all of them white. The town has one main street and is surrounded by cornfields.
    "I never realized my name was an African-American name because where I grew up we literally had one African-American child during the whole 12 years I had gone there in school," says Francis, a petite woman who exudes a Midwestern friendliness. "No one said anything. I was oblivious."
    LaKiesha Francis with her mother, LaDeana Diver.
    LaDeana Diver, Francis' mother, says she wasn't trying to make a political statement with her daughter's name. She was trying to settle a disagreement. She and her husband Frank couldn't agree on a name when she became pregnant. They eventually came up with a compromise while vacationing in Florida.
    "I brought a baby-name book and that was about the only name we agreed on, "Diver says. "So she ended up LaKiesha."
      From the beginning, there was criticism. Diver says her relatives told her people wouldn't be able to pronounce her daughter's name. They said some might think there were black people in their family.
      "I'm not prejudiced," Diver says. "A name is a name. To me it doesn't matter. I liked the name. I think it's a pretty name."

      Where do distinctively black names come from?

      A name isn't just a name, according to history and social science. Give someone the wrong name and it can become a burden.
      That belief is partly why many Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants who came to America in the early 20th century whitened their children's names to avoid persecution and increase their chances of social mobility. It's part of the reason why the Asian actress Chloe Bennet dropped her surname, Wang, to work in Hollywood.
      That thinking was validated in