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.


  1. cordoba blue

    Actually, I think Sandy is kind of an out-dated 1950’s or 60’s name. And yes we should have racial diversity in classifying storms. Such as Hurrican LaToya, or Shanequa. Or Hurricane Dontarius,Jamal, Ta’Norris, Hurricane Jorge or Oleg.
    I have also thought military ships and aircraft leaned toward white names also. I would like to hear USS LeShonda or USS Antoine or a space shuttle named Shyanndra.
    Because I tutor many people from India that would be fun also such as Hurricane Nirvaan or Parundi. Or Typhoon Mihandra. Racial diversity just enriches everything. And it’s not boring.

    • Seattle in Texas

      You just jump on any opportunity to unleash your bigotry and racism with obvious pleasure and it’s pretty old….

      Maybe we could name the storms after internet handles, like “Cordoba Blue” or in this case, “Seattle in Texas” since this storm shut down Wall Street for a couple of days?

      • cordoba blue

        You need to do some serious soul searching Seattle. Your animosity is becoming psychotic! What is wrong with using African American names for storms? The entire point of the article is that storms were given exclusively white sounding names!
        What is wrong with using names from India or Poland or Mexico for our military devices? I think the names I mentioned sound beautiful. You are so full of antagonism that you can’t see beyond it. Or is it YOU who thinks my name ideas are inappropriate? Hmmm? Is that it?
        Please be honest with yourself and stop being so angry that it clouds all reason. You can’t fight racism if you are so pugnacious you lose all sense of logic.
        If you have a problem with re-naming storms other than white sounding names, this is something you should take up with Jessie, not me. I was AGREEING with Jessie.
        Thanks for reading this. I wish you the best, truly. I don’t want to argue with you. I just want you to please calm down and see that you are jumping to totally erroneous conclusions sometimes because of the intensity of your opinions.

        • Seattle in Texas

          I don’t agree with taking up “non-white” sounding names or the names from other societies and cultures, including those that are now extinct. Even animals for that matter, and so forth. But at the same time, I don’t think that’s what she was suggesting. If my interpretation was correct, she was being perhaps a bit sarcastic.

          But you are taking advantage of your disagreement with her on the point and exploiting the opportunity to unleash your own viscous racism, as if it is totally “okay” and even appropriate.

          Am I comfortable with racist sarcasm? Not really. I’m about as comfortable with racist sarcasm as I am with racist joking or any type of racism for that matter–which translates to, generally not tolerant of any forms. Growing up with some pretty wicked sarcasm, I do know the very clear difference between racist and anti-racist sarcasm. Also, I have come to understand that whites in particular of the higher SES (middle +) tend to lack competency in sarcasm, which at times can translate to ignorance. But more often than not, privileged whites are well aware of how they are using sarcasm and use it as opportunities to be racist, sexist, classist, and so on, in a “colorblind” or “post-racial society” rather than to make points that stick as deep seated lessons or to make strong counterpoints. They use it as alternative ways to communicate their racism in open and public manners, and in ways they think they can turn around and argue they weren’t being “racist” they were just joking or “just being fastidious”. And again, the sarcasm you displayed in your responses to Jessie was clearly a racist form and inappropriate…and done with some sort of almost seemingly sadistic pleasure. This I can say with confidence given the history and nature of your past posts for probably a couple of years now.

          To be honest, I was personally a bit surprised you did not use “Black male sounding names” given the hatred of Black men you’ve displayed in the past. And your response is the typical white privileged response that demands of others, that you should be excused coupled with aggressive attacks in your own defense.

          Nice try on making the effort to “flip the script”…if anything at times, you are a bit entertaining?

          • cordoba blue

            I teach people who have newly arrived here from other countries EVERY DAY. Many of my students and their families have names I cannot pronounce such as Deepthi or Tarun or Ahmet.
            On the other hand,you have admitted yourself you’ve NEVER been out of the country, yet you propose to know “how Europeans think”. And this nonsense about how “Germans have accepted responsibility for their racist past but Americans have not”. This, when a woman of African descent plainly stated a while back that she grew up in Germany and it was so racist that it affected her mental health.
            You SOUND provincial! You have never been outside lil ole Texas no doubt. I have traveled extensively and visit homes of people from various parts of the world in my tutoring job. I am accustomed to multi-cultural approaches to just about everything.
            You, on the other hand, take all your “ideas” {from what I can tell anyway} from Hippie 101. Hate the Mean Capitalists. Hate any kind of structure. It’s just not Cool {man} to try to achieve anything on your own {man}. If the government doesn’t provide it, let’s just all let our hair down and throw our Birkenstocks at anybody who has actually accomplished something through their own efforts. Seattle is content to stare at her navel all day in a soporific haze.
            I mean you’re the one who said that our school hours {8-3pm} were “white school hours”. HUH? As if children in Africa attend school from 8 pm to 2:00 am in the morning? Where do you get this stuff? Is anyone supposed to take this seriously?
            If naming events or place with multi-cultural sounding names is sarcasm to you, then you really are an Okie from “the heartland”. You aren’t used to seeing or even hearing any other names except Susie Ann or Betty Jane Lou. Therefore anything that varies from that sounds like sarcasm to you. Oh, the ramifications of being raised in small town America!
            Run my suggested names through your mind a few times until you get USED TO THEM and voila, they won’t SOUND so strange anymore. They make more sense than some ideas you’ve tried to sell like “letting kids decide what they want to do in school”. What do you think they would do if given such free rein? They’d sit on the swings all day of course.
            In most indigenous societies there are very strict rules as to how children should behave. This is not a “white thing”. Many cultures have manhood training traditions and if the boys don’t “pass” they are not allowed to marry and are shunned within the group for the rest of their lives. So some degree of order regarding raising children is not a European or White thing.
            Have you ever seen a Chinese mother reprimanding her children for not studying hard enough? I see it EVERY DAY. These ladies are tough on their kids. They expect hard work from infancy. Again, setting limits to child behavior is not a “White” concept. But for some reason you think it is. And that, in turn, means you disapprove. Such lack of simple logic is mind boggling.
            Again, Seattle, please stop using Abby Hoffman as a reference for everything you think or say. Thanks for reading. 🙂

          • Seattle in Texas

            wow lmao, seriously. Why do you hate hippies so much? I don’t understand. 🙁 What have they ever done to you?

            And your devotion to aggressively assimilating people new to the U.S. and upholding laws and policies that fail the poor and disproportionately groups of color (but ideal and most convenient for white middle class America) is obvious. I get it I get it Cordoba.

            Have you ever thought about taking like an updated educational psychology course or even a sociology course? Perhaps a sociology of education course? Just a suggestion to consider….

  2. Joe

    And, once again, the looming contextual issue hinted at by Jessie is the more important one, the bigger box as it were: WHO gets to decide these matters? Mostly elite whites, esp elite white men, make most of these decisions. Why are they not called out, as names like Sandy mostly come out of their white racial framing of society and get imposed on all folks…. and there are studies too showing how few folks of color, most esp how few Blacks, there are in the meteorology profession. That too signals the dominance of systemic racism as the bigger box here.

  3. cordoba blue

    Mayan culture is also a great source of names for natural events like hurricanes.Such as Hurricane Caracol, Tikal,or Palenque. Typhoon Copán, or Typhoon Xunantunich or Tsunami Calakmul. Tracking Storm Lamanai, Dos Pilas, Cahal Pech. “We have an update on Hurricane Uaxactun” sounds very multi-cultural. All these names are ancient Mayan cities by the way. “Bonampak Batters Boston.” This sounds so much more sophisticated than “Hurricane Fred Hurries Through Hoboken”.

  4. cordoba blue

    This pertains to Halloween. As children walk through my neighborhood giggling behind their masks as their parents follow behind them, does anyone stop and think about the racism inherent in many Halloween costumes?
    First of all, I notice the color black designates “scary”, “evil”, “dangerous”. For example, vampire and witch costumes are all colored black. Angel costumes are white. Granted ghosts are white also, but ghosts are not depicted as necessarily evil (Casper the Friendly Ghost).
    Also blonde hair is designated for princesses, angels (have you ever seen a dark-haired angel?) and “good” fairies. It is supposed to represent ethereal goodness and charm, nothing evil here at all. But witches always have jet black wigs. Evil monsters always have black fur or hair. How many monsters have you seen with blonde curly hair? Pirates (thieves in reality) also always have black hair.
    Also, ethnic stereotypes run rampant at “Party City” or other costume retail stores. The lazy Mexican wearing a sombrero and ragged but colorful clothes. How many times have you seen an affluent Mexican costume? Plenty of Chinese Ninja costumes but very few beautiful Chinese gowns. Very few Japanese Kimonos either. But lots of Samurai costumes depicting the “savage” Japanese warrior.
    There is the “the maid” costume. We all know that one. Black fish net stockings, short skirt with a tiny little apron and low-cut blouse. The message is clear. Maids are sexual objects, and being a maid is not considered a respectable profession. Thus the meme ends up in a costume shop.
    And of course, the Native American. Feathers, “war bonnets”, plastic tomahawks, and bows and arrows. Lots of face paint for sale to achieve that “Indian look”.
    Very few ethnic costumes are available that actually celebrate diversity, like beautiful clothes that represent a country’s or race’s heritage. It’s all about sensationalist stereotypes.
    Animal costumes are harmless enough or “object” costumes like pumpkins. Some children dress up like pumpkins. But when it comes to costumes that depict people, many stereotypes are utilized and thus perpetuate these negative images.

  5. Seattle in Texas

    I’m not sure any names can be given to Hurricanes without them being racialized in some way given how the social construction of U.S. society is inherently racialized and racist. I can’t think of any themes at the moment. Though the idea of using numbers might be most appropriate, such as following them numerically followed with the year it occurs, “1-12” or “13-12”, etc.

    On the white naming, it was suggested that perhaps if they “have to be named” white names are most appropriate given the obvious destruction they cause on disproportionately communities of color and the poor…. While this was suggested in a joking manner, there was some level of underlying honest feelings associated with the suggestion.

    In the media, I’ve only heard 1 time the mention of race and that was not on FOX News and that was the suggestion that those who will be most affected will be communities of color and those living in poverty. On the other end of the spectrum, what I have heard on the news is “fears of looting” and “people taking advantage of this crisis situation”, etc., which I perceive to be racist code language.

    In looking on the Internet on whose most negatively affected by this horrible storm, poverty and the elderly has been referenced but I haven’t seen any serious articles on race from major news outlets. There may be many reasons for this and maybe I just missed them if they are out there. If they are not, perhaps part of this may be due to the presidential elections, trying to maintain social cohesion and order during times of tragedy for these areas and so on. There may be fears of associating the failure of W with Katrina (which has been shown to be racist) with President Obama and his current handling of the situation–it all becoming quickly convoluted. So far as we can tell, President Obama is doing a good job up there and what he can within his power as the president to provide the necessary support needed up there.

    But the lack of discussion on this storm and racism with relation to those who are most affected at least by now from the larger society, is disturbing. And it’s sad that white middle/upper class media always translates the “real damage” with the property and monetary damage endured by the privileged groups (those who have insurance, resources and mobility to evacuate, and recover fairly quickly after the storm has passed…) thereby, making those without, largely invisible and irrelevant….

    • cordoba blue

      By the way, “fears of looting” is not racist code language. On NPR a man from Mexico who worked 12 years to save up enough money to start his own restaurant had to deal with 3 feet of water in his establishment. His food supplies in the basement were spoiled. The freezers etc are beyond repair because the standing water ruined the circuits etc.
      He was bemoaning the fact that the store windows had been broken and anything movable had been stolen. Did he deserve this? Let me say it again: 12 years of hard work down the drain and you want to convolute the situation by blaming the media for using the words “fears of looting”?
      Fears of looting means just that. Fear of your property being stolen because of its exposure due to flooding and destruction. What’s coded about that?
      This man, and many immigrants who came to America, worked hard for what they have. Those “horrible capitalists” that you criticize so much are proud {as they should be} of the hard work they put into their businesses. These are people of all nationalities and ethnic backgrounds.
      I realize you don’t believe America should be a meritocracy in any manner, and think it’s elitist to actually push yourself to support your family. However, many people are proud of a product or service they provide. Many people move to America so they are able to do just that.They start out with nothing but the clothes on their back, and they work from sun-up til sun-down 6 or 7 days a week.
      You expect the American government to provide for the poor. All well and good. But who pays taxes to the Feds so the government in turn can provide for said poor? People who work Seattle. If there were no people who did “capitalistic free enterprise work” then where would all these altruistic programs for disadvantaged people come from?
      You are not reasonable Seattle. At least it seems so to me. Just my opinion that you should not be quite so belligerent because it does obfuscate clear thinking.

  6. Seattle in Texas

    Oh oh oh, and some Native Texans have been trying to tell me directly that anybody in the U.S. should speak English–period. No resources should be put into bilingual education, etc., etc., etc. These are genuine sentiments by people who believe they are incredibly patriotic Americans and most loyal to the U.S., as well as fine white Christians.

    A bit ago I listened to a speech by Mayor Bloomberg who had said they are issuing pamphlets in English, Spanish, and Chinese around those areas hit the hardest. For folks who harbor such strong beliefs with regard to language in the U.S., I’m assuming Mayor Bloomberg is not being loyal to the U.S. and not being a good American for issuing pamphlets throughout New York that are also in languages other than English? After all, according to folks who share these types of ideals, perhaps if they wanted to be helped or were deserving of any help, they would have “learned English”? Hmmm. Done griping.


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