Tuesday, October 27, 2009

You choose your choices, but not in a vacuum

Two conversations broiling on the InterWebs caught my attention this week and got me thinking about "choice." On Sunday, television personality Star Jones tweeted her thoughts on the "good hair" issue. On Monday, Feministe published a post about a recent study that found 70 percent of Americans believe a woman should change her name at marriage and that 50 percent believe women should be legally MANDATED to do so. (I still can't look at that stat without blanching.)

On the subject of natural vs. straightened black hair, in response to a USA Today article on the controversies surrounding Chris Rock's new movie, Jones said:

I love me some Chris Rock...& I thank him for making AN ASPECT of Black culture relevant to the masses. But it is only AN aspect...not all.

I reject the premise that if I wear my hair short & natural I'm more black; any more than wearing a weave means I want to be white.

Long & Straight, Short & Red, Braided & Blond...it's all mine...at least it is after I pay for it. LOL Sorry...just not that deep to me.

One of my fondest memories as a child is sitting on a white stool in the kitchen getting my hair straighted by my Mommy with a "hot comb."
Jones seems to believe that a black woman's decision to straighten her hair is just that--her choice--and that much too much ado is being made about the meaning of it.

Over on Feministe, commenters were talking about a different sort of choice. In her post "The Name Game," blogger Jill said of the pressure to adopt one's husband's family name:

What throws me off even more is when I see feminist-minded or liberal women take their husband's name, and then defend it with "Well it's my choice" or "My last name was my father's anyway" or "I don't care about my name." I can understand the name-change part, even if I don't like it — it can almost be more of a hassle to keep your own name than to take your husband's once you're married, especially if you have kids. People may criticize you for keeping your own name. In a lot of communities, it is what everyone does. Your husband may even be upset if you don't want to take his name (although I'd say that's a pretty good indicator that he's kind of self-centered and you probably shouldn't marry him).

What confuses me (and gets under my skin) is the justification — or at least, the justification based on things other than the very real, tangible sexist reactions that married women face when they keep their own names. Things like, "Well, it was my father's name." Well, sure, but what does that mean? That no woman ever has her own name, unless she was born into a culture where naming is matrilineal? Or, "I like his name better." Ok, but do men regularly change their names just because their partner as a "better" name? I've come across maybe one man in my whole life who has done that — I somehow doubt that it just so happens that 99 percent of people with the "better" name are male. Or, "I want our whole family to have the same name." Again, understandable, but how come he didn't change his name? Or you can both change your names. Read more...

But readers who have made the choice to adopt their husbands' names, or who plan to do so, bristled. One offered:

I've got to say, after reading this post and some of the comments that follow it, I'm feeling flat-out judged that I changed my name when I got married. And I feel like in my comment I haaaaave to say why I decided to do it and have a darn good reason for it too, or else I should just turn in my feminist card posthaste.

Instead, I'm going to point out that the reasons couples entering marriage have for changing or not changing their names or any combination thereof are not always boiled down to "it's the partriarchal tradition, blah blah yada blah." When we make the same sweeping generalizations that the conservative, patriarchal, sexist, whatever-elses do, what's the point?

In the end, I'd like my decision (for a number of things, not just in changing my name) not to be simplified in such a manner, especially here where we usually consider things further and open up debates that I really, really enjoy and find enlightening/useful.

When the conversation turns to black women and their tresses (which it seems to more and more often these days), a chorus of straightening/weaving/wigging is "just a preference" is sure to erupt from my non-natural hair-wearing sisters. Similarly, the marriage/surname discussion seems to always spark tension in the femisphere. "Patriarchy has nothing to do with why I took my husband's name. His name is just better/easier to spell or I don't like my family. It's MY choice."

To both of these arguments I say, "You're absolutely right!" Freedom means being able to make your own choices about how you look and what you call yourself. Everyone should be empowered to make the personal choices that work best for them.


It is disingenuous to say that our choices--mine, yours, every body's--aren't influenced by a host of things, including the biases of the society we live in. You are absolutely free to choose your choices, but you don't do so in a vacuum. The statistics on the straightening of highly-textured hair and those on women taking their husbands' names should illustrate how bias can creep into our "choices." I believe Star Jones when she says she views hair an an accessory and likes to change up her look from time to time. Cool. Her choice. But do I believe that more than 80 percent of black women spend exorbitant amounts of money and time changing or covering their natural hair texture just by happenstance? Do I believe that "nappy" and "you-so-black" are still fighting words on the playground just because? Do I believe that most black women are completely unfamiliar with their natural hair and its care for trivial reasons? Do I believe that many black women avoid intimacy and physical exercise to better preserve straightened hairstyles because it is fun? Do I believe it's by chance that I hear black women repeating negative myths about the manageability and acceptability of natural hair? No, I do not.

I believe that hundreds of years of demonization of blackness and common black physicality, such as broad features and kinky hair, and the preferencing of whiteness in our society has had some great influence on the black community's choices as whole, if not our individual choices. It may not be "that deep" for Star Jones, but I think it is that deep for the larger community.

Similarly, while women should feel free to take their partners' names at marriage or not, the fact that only five to 10 percent of American women choose to keep their family names in 2009 surely says something. It says something that all of the legitimate reasons women give for making the change are almost never made by men as reasons to change their names. How often do you hear a groom-to-be say, "My name sounds funny and my fiance's is much better, I'm taking her name?" Or, "I have a difficult relationship with my dad, so I am shedding my last name to make a break from the past." Men don't usually say these things upon getting married. Why? Because society's general assumption is that a woman's identity (and name) will be absorbed by her husband's at marriage. (In fact, in the study referenced above, respondents said as much.) The woman will become Mrs. HusbandFirstName HusbandLastName and her husband will be the "head" of the household. It is not a masculine thing to give your name away. And I have seen some references that imply women who do not adopt their husband's names are less feminine. We life in a sexist society with patriarchal traditions and that is what our society believes. Remember: HALF of respondents would have women legally MANDATED to take their husband's names.

Does all of this mean that women who take their husband's names are bad feminists or womanists? Of course not.

Are black women who perm their hair "less black?" Poppycock!

But no one is really arguing that they are. That charge is borne of defensiveness, I think. The truth is that race and gender bias are ever present in our society in many obvious and not-so-obvious ways. And as hard as some of us work, they invade our lives and, yes, our choices. We can't be so precious about our individual decisions that we minimize and shut down conversation about these things.

I'm not trying to be holier-than-thou as a natural-hair-wearing, hyphenated-name-sporting black woman. I make plenty of choices every day that are influenced by societal bias and convention. Everybody does. When folks talk about the black middle class and its abandonment of traditionally black neighborhoods, I think about my reasons for living in a majority white suburban community or the gentrifying mixed neighborhood we moved from. I have many reasons that are valid for me and my family for living where we do. Some of them, I know, are likely influenced by my own racial and class biases. Do I have to give back my black card? Does that make me a bad person? A bad anti-racist? No, it makes me human. I can own my choice, examine what it means, do what works for me and still be a part of what is a valid discussion about the fracturing of the black community. My personal decisions have context, meaning and impact on my larger community. It is foolish to pretend they don't.

Jill at Feministe says:

Names and naming matters. It is bigger than just an individual, personal choice. While I certainly respect the rights of people to make their own choices when it comes to their names, and while I can't fault women who decide that keeping their own name is not a battle they want to fight, let's not pretend like these choices exist in a vaccum, or like they don't have a wider impact when it comes to normalizing sexist cultural practices.

Yes. This. Once biases become absorbed into culture as "tradition" and "just choice," once they are normalized, they become harder to unpack. But we need to resist this. How will we defeat racism, sexism and other biases if we cannot speak frankly about them?

I am free to make choices. But with that freedom comes an obligation to examine what influences those decisions.


Liana said...

"It's my choice" is truly an easy response. Yes it is your choice, no question, but as you've illustrated here Tami, that choice was not made in a vacuum. There are societal factors that impact an individual's choice.

Whenever I attempt to raise that issue, what I get in return is "why do you have to take everything so seriously? It's not that deep!" Well yeah, life is more deep if you explore the universe beyond the tip of your nose.

And you, Tami, still changed your name by hyphenating. I didn't change mine at all when I got married. And our kid's last name is hyphenated with mine and my husband's last name. Talk about being way out there on the weirdness meter in most people's minds. :-)

Tami said...


You're right! I did change my name. I hyphenated. I thought about just keeping my surname, but actually kind of liked the sound of the two together. I do own that the choice to change was not a feminist choice. It's just what worked for me.

I like the way you did it. It's not weird at all! :) If my husband and I had planned to have kids, I probably would have kept my maiden name so it would be easier to hyphenate the child's name.

HK-S said...

THANK YOU for this post!
Both my husband and I changed our last names...we hyphenated our last names together. At first, my husband was rather indifferent, leaving the choice to me...but he witnessed the enormous pressures (and dilemma) I was facing in trying to make a decision. He had a wake-up call and felt convicted to go through the process with me...so he went through the entire process of legally changing his last name as well. We did it together; and whenever I face confusion or inconvenience, he faces them with me.

The amount of criticism, judgement, puzzlement, and defensiveness (about their choices) that I've received from my highly-educated peers was mind-boggling. Many posed arguments such as, "what are you going to do when you have kids? and what if they want to eventually hyphenate?" I guess they will have to make their own decision when their time comes.

My last name holds thousands of years of cultural history, including survival through colonial oppression and attempted assimilation: no way in hell am I giving it up.

Kjen said...

I think the reasons we keep hearing the same answers (its my choice, i just prefer it this way)is because these discussions/debates/wars allow for no ambiguity.

And while I appreciate your attempt to point out how these arguments aren't about judging others, I think thats incorrect. Because you're only asked this type of question by people who do believe that there is if not 1 right choice, then one more appropriate, conscious, progressive choice. In other words, discussions about the hatred black women's hair aren't generally brought up by women with perms? And my mother who uses my father name has never asked me what I'll be called after I'm married? So, theres already pressure there to give a certain answer.

And more to the point, if people are what they do, then who wants to admit that they are self-loathing/patriarchial up-holding wuss. I don't think people are able to hear this issue without feeling judged.

I don't think you can go to an individual and tell them that they are partly responsible for holding up an antiquated/hated system (a system is nothing more than the collarboration of countless individuals' efforts) and expect for them not to get defensive.

Sara said...

Woof. This post took my breath away.

I didn't think twice about keeping my name when I got married. My family from WYO was stunned and the grandmas sent me checks and letters addressed to Mrs. Husband and were perplexed when the bank wouldn't cash them.

But I didn't think I was in such a teeny minority. And the idea that people think we should legislate how I handle my name gives me the civil-liberty creepy crawlies.

And I hear you on the natural/straight issue. Even my 6 year old is clear that grown up black women have permed hair and little girls have natural hair - no matter how many times we talk about our adult friends sporting their locks, braids and free hair.

Mad Gastronomer said...

I'm not married, and never have been, but I've always planned to keep my name. I might consider hyphenating, but I'm very attached to my surname.

My resolve was only reinforced when a friend told me that in Washington State, there's no provision for changing the name on a deed, so that if a woman owns property, marries and changes her name, she has to sell the property to herself under her new name. (Or, indeed, if anyone changes a name for any reason, but the particularly sexist assumption that no woman would own property before marriage irks me especially. I'm sure that, say, men changing their name upon marriage, or transsexuals changing their names, have the same trouble.)(Oh, and I own my home, so yeah, no name-changing for me.)

SJC said...

Ooof. Thinking about that 50% makes my skin crawl. MANDATED? I never imagined such a thing.

I am, however, changing my name. For me to come to this decision took a great deal of fear-facing, and honesty with myself, as well as some discussion with my partner. I've come to a place where I know that this is what is right for me, and I don't feel defensive about it. For me, that is the ring of truth... When I can hold my head up and respectfully hear disagreement from others about my choices without feeling threatened or attacked, then I know that I'm standing in my truth.

My hair was a similar journey. For years, my hair was artificially straightened, and it was anxiety-inducing to think of living any other way. To have natural hair felt unkempt, childish... Shameful, really. As I got into my mid-20's, I felt I had to face that fear of my real hair, and I did. It was painful and terrifying at first, but ultimately it changed everything. Now that I no longer stigmatize myself, I really feel free to have my hair any way I choose because no matter what I know it's an honest choice.

The choice I've made about my hair (for the foreseeable future it's natural) looks different than the choice I'm making about my name. But they are both my truth, and if I have to explain my choices to a daughter one day, I'll know I can tell her that honestly. And that in turn I'll be able to support her in the journey to discover her truth, whatever it may be, because I've noticed that an important consequence of finding my own truth is that when I stop judging myself, I stop judging others. It's not just that I feel okay about my choices, when I really dig in to understand and accept my choices, I feel okay about your choices too.

Anonymess said...

I have nothing to contribute, but wanted to thank you for the excellent post.

teaspoon said...

I recently got married and decided to change my name. Although I am a feminist, I guess I hadn't been thinking of it from a feminist perspective. I had a stepdad from an early age, and I struggled with a last name for a long time. At times, in school, I used my stepdad's name. I hyphenated both for awhile. Eventually it became too complicated, especially during "roll call", so I reverted to my birth name.

I begged my mom to let me take her Maiden name, because I felt so burdened by the prospect of having to choose between a dad and a father. She refused to let me. She said, "You'll just change it when you get married." Well, I did. Was it right? I'm not sure. I am tired of hyphenating. I haven't taken my marriage certificate to the Social Security office. Even though I didn't apply for it, do you think I could still keep my maiden name as a second middle name?

Tami said...


I THINK (but could be wrong) that until you officially change your name with Soc. Sec. it isn't changed. Anyone else know if I am right about this. SS was the first thing a changed when I hyphenated at marriage.

uu said...

I've always wondered about the name change thing after marriage. I was born in the U.S, raised in the U.S and still live here, so I understand the concept of the "tradition" part of the "wife" having to take the last name of the "husband," but I wondered why? Why doesn't the "husband" take on the "wife's" last name? Why does it seem like the only choices are take the "husband's" last name or hyphenate it or for the "wife" to keep her last name and the "husband" to keep his last name?

It can't be because the majority of potential "husbands" hate their "wife's" last name so much so that they wouldn't dare take it as their own, would it? Or maybe the a potential "husband" doesn't really like their potential "wife."

Gail said...

A great discussion with no easy answers for me. I'm thinking about choice, and the ones I've made. I changed my name, straighten my hair, and live in the suburbs. I never wanted to change my name, and there is still a twinge of regret that I did. Everybody who mattered to me was/is aghast at the idea of my keeping my name. Should I have gone against the grain? I don't know. I had mixed emotions then. The issue still has never been fully resolved for me. I love my husband with all my heart, and pray I grow old with that man, but no matter what, I will never change my name again.

In a perfect world, or If I were more perfect, I would proudly wear my hair natural without covering the streaks of gray. But I am not. Instead I am what my hair stylist calls "a salon woman". I couldn't even tell you when last I've washed my own hair. But the truth is I really like how I look. Maybe there is a natural look out there that I would like just as much. I haven't found it, yet. But I can't say I am happy about the time and money I spend on my hair.

I have always wanted to live in the city. But I was born in the suburbs, married a suburbanite, and my support system is in the suburbs. So I live in the suburbs. But one day...

Kudos's to all of you have courageously marched against societal norms, patriarchal systems, religious indoctrination and are living your life on your terms. I haven't made peace with all of my choices, but I have made "truce". For now.

teaspoon said...

Thanks Tami! I wasn't sure if I still had an option because when I applied for the Marriage License, the clerk gave me a few options and I told them I just wanted to change it. I wasn't sure if it was set in stone at that point or not.

Heather said...

The name change debate always brings to mind one of my favorite college professors. On the first day of class every semester she told us we could all call her Dr. FirstName, because her full name, Dr. MaidenName-MarriedName was a mouthful, and she understood that. Then she would tell us how when she married her husband offered to take her name, but she turned him down because she didn't want his family to think of her as the crazy bitch who made him change his name. So instead, they both hyphenated, and their kids are all hyphenated as well. I've always liked that as an answer, even if the bit about his family's feelings was always a little problematic.

Sandy said...

I agree with you 100% about the name-change thing. My last name is Olive, and I love it, and it's a huge part of me, and if I wasn't a feminist I'd keep it anyway because my name is Sandy Olive, and I mean, seriously. How crazy and fun is that? But - "It's my choice" is a short answer. It's not necessarily the "easy" answer, because there is a lot that could be attached to it, and just as it's no one's business if I keep it if I ever get married, it's no one's business if I change it. Anyone who's going to sass me about it either way is going to get a terse "It's my choice," and that's all.

Satsuma said...

"My choice" is just about how most women who conform to patriarchal marriage hetero name games as cowards. Make the damn husband change HIS name! How about men erase THEIR identities, hey, it's women's choice to refuse to marry these dinosaurs to begin with.

To quote the Clinton 1992 election campaign in paraphrase---it's the patriarchy stupid!

Sandy B. said...

What a terrific post! I absolutely love the juxtaposition of two things that seemed (to me) like they didn't go together at first (Black women's hair and all marrying women's naming choices) converging in such a resolute way. Tami, I'm so awed and moved by your ability to put out and acknowledgment of your own issues (hyphenating, moving from a gentrifying mixed neighborhood) and owning them. I'm all about - okay, I try to be all about - acknowledging my hypocrisies (one being the fact that I know that eating red meat is worse for our globe than not, but I still love cow!) and moving forward with them.

Sandy B. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
renata said...

It is so crazy that you do that name changing thing in your country. My goodness, i thank the people beforme me for not having that kind of costumes, it's patriarchism crystalized. If people can't just see how anti feminist this is we are kinda screwed, aren't we? Where i live, in south america, names doesn't change, everybody keeps its' own, well, their own because we use dad's and mom's surnames, and the kids are named after the dad first and mother second. We are now fighting for that, so any couple can name their kids with the surname they want first, bus, as you might guess, the battle is getting hard, and many many people (even so-called feminist men) don't want this to change at all. I just hope we finally get there so i can call my kids after my name, my boyfriend agrees they should have the mother's name first.

About hair, i think you are right but it is somehow a superficial thing people wanna keep as superficial. I just cant imagine how much money a black person has to spend on straightening those curls... And plus, anybody can do what they want but i believe one's hair fits one's face mos perfectly than any artificial thing. Curly hair goes with curly faces, so does straight.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I had no idea that US women have to face all this pressure about the surname changing thing.

I'm Italian. In Italy, since 1975 women legally keep their maiden name after marriage.

And Italy surely can't be described as a feminist country. For the record, last year it ranked 80th in Global Gender Gap report. And if the couple have kids, they always take the husband's surname.



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