Is (Hurricane) “Sandy” a White Name?

I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Texas, and so I’m used to hurricanes. Hurricane Celia was the Big One I lived through as a kid, and still have vivid memories of an entire rooftop of a house, floating down the street in front our house, a street which had become a river of debris. Today, I live in New York City where we’re all bracing for “Hurricane Sandy” and this has me pondering the politics of hurricane naming. At one time, we thought hurricane naming could be sexist ~ can names convey racial politics as well?

The practice of naming hurricanes has a long and complex history, once bringing in Greek letters, another round of numbering them, a couple hundred years of using Christian saints’ names, then the recent 40 years of sexism. It’s actually tropical storms that get named, and they retain their names once they reach hurricane strength. Naming storms, rather than, say, calling them by longitudinal and latitudinal numbers, serves a couple of functions: it’s a way to help people remember storms and it raises awareness about storm preparedness. Through most of my childhood, hurricanes were given female names, beginning with the letter “A” and running through the alphabet. That ended in 1978 when some feminists argued it was sexist to only use female names to designate storms. Since then, the World Meteorological Association has adopted the practice of alternating between male and female names. What does it mean that this storm has been designated “Sandy,” a name that spawns Internet memes that revolve around Olivia Newton-John as Sandy in “Grease” (as in this image below).

(Image from Queerty)

Over on the Twitter machine, I posed the question: “Is Sandy a white name?”  A couple of folks (@KatyPearce) disagreed with me there, including Dr. Cherie Ann Turpin (@drturpin) who pointed out that black OR white are not mutually exclusive categories when it comes to names.

She makes an excellent point, but the Internet memes of white-Sandy-from-Grease churn on like the storm.

So, it begs the question: does it matter what name a storm gets called?

I think looking at storm-names, and the storm-naming process, can give us some insight into racial (and gender) politics. The fact is that naming storms is a process that’s steeped in both racism and sexism. Even though the names are (supposedly) approaching gender parity now, the sexism that still permeates the discussion prompts this guidance from the AP style tips page for reporters writing about storms:

– Hurricanes don’t have sexes, no matter what the name. They should be referred to as it, not he or she.

– Avoid bad and sexist puns when using hurricane names. AP’s hurricane entry in the stylebook is worth quoting in full: “And do not use the presence of a woman’s name as an excuse to attribute sexist images of women’s behavior to a storm. Avoid, for example, such sentences as: The fickle Hazel teased the Louisiana coast.”

It’s this that gives me pause about calls like the one by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) for more racial diversity in the naming of storms. Meteorology as an industry has been historically (pdf) marked by racial exclusion, yet when someone like Rep. Jackson Lee points out the results of this, she gets pilloried by right-wingers for arguing for “affirmative action” for hurricanes.  That said, I fear the mindless racism that would be unleashed by naming a storm something that might be deemed identifiably African American.

Still, there’s some irony in the juxtaposition between the images of women featured on the front page of the World Meteorological Organization’s website – the organization that’s responsible for naming storms – and the image collectively conjured at the name “Sandy.”  Perhaps it’s time for another change in storm-naming, maybe drawing on Mayan gods or supernatural beings, rather than reifying U.S. pop culture constructions of white femininity.