Adoptees: It Might Do Us Well to Change Our Names

For most of my life my name has been Jennifer Krystal Eik.

One of the first orders of business for white adoptive parents upon adopting a baby of a different race like myself, is to give the child a legal name change.

When the baby’s birth name is known, it is common practice to take part of the child’s name, usually their first name, and move it to their middle name. This makes space for the child to be given a new, “more culturally common or typical” (read: less Black/other), first name. The child then obviously acquires their adoptive parents’ surname.

Ask any transracial adoptee that you know; odds are they have experienced the name shuffle to some degree.

As a child, it was communicated to me that Krystal was the name given to me at birth by my biological mother, while Jennifer was among the most popular names for white baby girls in the 80’s. Eik, pronounced “Ike” like the former president — meaning “oak” in Norwegian, is my adoptive family’s last name.

This name shuffle birthed my government name from the age of six months to 33 years: Jennifer Krystal Eik.

The earliest memory that I have of feeling discomfort with my name was in kindergarten. As a child, I was called Jenny — spelled with a “y”, by family and friends. Preferring Jenny to Jennifer, I proudly brought my shortened name to school and took my time to carefully pen it onto my crayon box and assignments. My teacher, however, didn’t appreciated the substitute for my formal name in writing. In an attempt to “assure that I became comfortable spelling my full name”, she would instruct me to write Jennifer on my worksheets any time she noticed that I had written Jenny.

This was, to put it plainly, a pain in the ass. Erasing the “y” and replacing it with an “i” so that I could add the “fer” took precious time as well as an exhausting effort to recruit my developing fine motor skills. Each time I was corrected, I would reluctantly make the change and slide the worksheet back across my teacher’s desk without breaking eye contact.

It didn’t take long for me to inform my mom that I would be changing the spelling of my name from Jenny to Jenni in order to be better prepared for future confrontations by my teacher.

In hindsight, this battle for control over how my name was spelled and the freedom to use the version that felt most comfortable to me was foretelling of a struggle that I would face for my entire life.

For the next 28 years, I would go from Jenny to Jenni to Jennifer to Eik to Krystal to Jen and back to Jennifer again. No matter which variation of Jennifer or Krystal I used, I never felt like my names suited me. Instead, when people used them, it felt like they were addressing somebody else.

Eik, on the other hand, was a name that I found comfort in. Being very involved in sports growing up, going by my last name was accepted as a normal part of athlete culture. I was able to go by Eik confidently, and I appreciated my last name for its uniqueness and for its ability to protect me from the names that evoked confusion and discomfort.

I chose to honor my former middle name, Krystal, as one of the very few connections that I had to my biological mother — even though it felt constricting. I believe that when gifts from your biological parents are as few as mine, you tend to white-knuckle the ones that you have — no matter how much you might dislike them.

That sentiment changed with one phone call.

The first time I spoke with my biological mother was in 2019. After 33 years of wondering and imagining, I finally had the woman who had given birth to me on the phone. Following a handful of long silences and a bit of small talk, a question escaped my mouth before I had the opportunity to phrase it calmly:

“But, you named me Krystal, right?”

My birth mother explained that she hadn’t named me. That after I was born, we were only able to spend an hour or so together before she had to hand me off to the nurses who would send me on my way into foster care. Naming me hadn’t been a priority and wasn’t recommended as it can significantly increase one’s emotional attachment to the baby that is about to be relinquished.

And so, no. She hadn’t given me the name Krystal. She hadn’t given me any name at all.

It’s funny how certain revelations can be unsettling and clarifying at the same time. After our conversation, I couldn’t help but conclude that I had never taken to the name Krystal because it hadn’t been the connection to my biological family that I had believed it to be. There was something within me that always knew. Instead, the name Krystal had probably been given to me by my foster family — people who I neither knew nor had any other contact with. And so as quickly as the word “no” had left my birth mother’s mouth, Krystal lost all of its value to me, and consequently, I lost all desire to continue to preserve it.

I decided that Krystal was going to have to go, and that Jennifer might as well get the boot while I was at it.

Black feminist author Toni Cade Bambara was born Miltona Mirkin Cade. At the age of six, she chose to change her first name to Toni. Then, at the age of 30, upon discovering a sketchbook of her great-grandmother’s that displayed the surname Bambara, she opted to reclaim that piece of her family history as her own.

The late activist said this of her name change:

“…the minute I said it, I immediately inhabited it, felt very at home in the world. This was my name. It is not so unusual for an artist, a writer to name themselves; they are forever constructing themselves, are forever inventing themselves. That’s the nature of that spiritual practice.”

Like Bambara, I was able to discover one of the surnames of my biological family through my search. Diggs was a name that I chose to take back. I saw it as a true connection to biological family. A piece of my name story that finally made sense.

I decided on the first name that I chose for myself, J. — just one letter, with a period — because it feels complete and purposeful. It’s a name about me and only me.

J. disregards the forces that have been at play throughout my life to render my sense of self invisible and my history inaccessible.

J. is a choice that I made without minding the fear of being misunderstood or the guilt that seeks to bury Black transracial adoptees.

It’s a name that has been specially customized for my body and my story, and like Toni Cade Bambara, the moment I inhabited J. Eik Diggs, I was immediately home.

Adoptees, I’m sorry for your loss. I am sorry for the secrets, the missing links, the confusion and the pain. But, even though so much of our realities have been dictated for us, I don’t want us to ever resign to the idea that it must perpetually be that way.

Recovery and reclamation are necessary practices for our healing and growth. We can take back what is rightfully ours, and we can create something new even when there is nothing to reclaim.

Adoptees, (re)invention is our birthright, and it might do us well to start with our names.

TRA Black feminist and educator dabbling in writing, scholaring, and podcasting.