Kristin Rawls is a freelance writer based near Raleigh, North Carolina. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, AlterNet, Truthout, Bitch Magazine, Religion Dispatches, GOOD Magazine and many others.
Traversing Race and Class by Typographical Error
My last name – my father’s name – is Rawls. The first thing to know about it is that in the United States, the name is most common in African-American families. I think about this every time I have to give my name to a DMV worker or a Verizon representative or anyone else who needs to process my information in the course of any transaction. Anywhere in the country.
It’s a very frequent marker of the de facto racial segregation that persists in this country.
It goes like this, pretty much without fail: African-Americans hear me say it, and they get it right away. I don’t have to spell it or make sure they get “a as in apple” because it’s a name they know.
White people have a lot of trouble. “Ross?” “Rawiss?” “Royce?”
There’s one exception to this rule, and that’s white people who were philosophy or political science majors. They’re usually familiar with the late political theorist John Rawls. And since they usually ask, I’ll just state for the record: I’m sometimes tempted to make up stories about my “Great Uncle John,” but John Rawls is not actually a relative.
So, back to the vast majority of white people in offices throughout America who don’t know my name: I’ll spell it, and still they invariably miss or mess up some of the letters.
So, I have to say, “R as in rat, A as in apple, W as in water, L as in Laura, S as in Sam.”
It’s always a very big production, and then there’s awkwardness when they have to say it because they deem it almost unpronounceable. Usually it comes out in two garbled syllables and rhymes with the word “towels.” It should sound a bit more like “walls,” but with a somewhat fuller middle sound because of the “w.”
When I have to give my first name, it’s often the other way around. White people almost always answer, “With an ‘e’ or an ‘i’?” End of story.
Black people sometimes hear it as “Christian,” and so ensues the awkward spelling process, this time with my first name. And there aren’t really any good “k” words. I’m forced to begin, “K as in, um, Kit-Kat” or “as in kleptomaniac.” Sometimes I’d peruse the dictionary before the first day of school to figure out a word I could use for one of those awkward name-learning games on the first day.
My parents probably didn’t think things would be this complicated when they named me.
So, as a white person with a Black last name, you might think I hail from a big, wealthy plantation family. There is such a family in Franklinton, North Carolina, but we’re not related.
This is the next kicker: The only reason my last name is “Rawls,” is that my grandfather, who died before I was born, never bothered to correct his military discharge records after World War II. His real name was “Rawles” with an “e.” At least, I’m pretty sure this is what happened.
But other relatives say it was his birth certificate that was misspelled. This seems less plausible to me. I’m supposed to believe he lived his whole childhood with a name different from that of his parents?
This matter is probably not that difficult to settle, but for this side of my family, tall tales have as much currency as hard-nosed facts. I suspect that no one who hasn’t seen his birth certificate lately is quite sure what’s true. We just know that his last name should have contained an “e.”
My Rawls grandmother says “Rawls” without an “e” is the wealthy version of the name, at least among white people – the family name of those folks based in Franklinton. As far as I know, I am not related to them. If we were, I should probably have come into some of my inheritance by now. Of course, I’d be fine with a Jane Eyre situation and an inheritance from a long-lost cousin, but you know, I don’t think it’s likely.
My grandmother says “Rawles” with an “e” is the poor, white working class version of the name, the one taken by Rawles folks who hail from the Chesapeake area. I’ve never actually met a Rawles, so my grandmother’s parsing of the missing “e” remains unconfirmed.
There’s another Kristin Rawls out there. I know because I sometimes get emails meant for her from a cousin or uncle by marriage of hers. Last I heard, she was a Young Life leader. I’ve been getting her emails for years now, and I promise I’ve emailed the guy back many times to let him know. Now all I have to write back is “wrong Kristin!” and he knows right away. A couple of years ago, we finally discussed the name connection. And nope, it doesn’t appear that I’m related to the family Kristin married into either.
One day when I have time, I’ll scour court and city records to find out as much about my ancestors as I can.
I’m attached to my name because of the stories that come with it and because of the perspective they’ve given me on the world. Just as importantly, I am deeply averse to making more trips to the DMV and other record-keeping agencies than absolutely necessary. So I’m unlikely to ever change my name.
And I really hope no one ever assumes that I’m judging their naming decisions because I never change my name. For the record, I could not care less what you do with your name. That’s up to you.
Let’s Talk About Names: Laura is the previous post in the series.
Let’s Talk About Names: Trudy is the next post in the series.