On Tuesday, one Robert Lee was punished for the actions of another. When ESPN decided to remove the sports broadcaster Robert Lee from covering the first University of Virginia football game of the season, it was, per the network’s own statement “simply because of the coincidence of his name.” UVA, and its home of Charlottesville, have been embroiled in turmoil over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, and the network thought it best to not evoke the obvious comparisons.
According to a statement from an ESPN executive shared by the journalist Yashar Ali, the move was made to protect Lee from potential “memes and jokes” and Lee himself was involved in the decision.
Regardless, all of this happened because, presumably, Lee’s parents liked the sound of the name Robert.
Both Robert and Lee are extremely common names. According to the website HowManyofMe.com, which searches a database of U.S. Census data, there are 5,128,282 Roberts in the United States, 731,046 people with the last name Lee, and a whopping 11,518 Robert Lees.
“I assume there’s a reason that even Robert E. Lee, the original general, went by his initial,” says Laura Wattenberg, the creator of BabyNameWizard.com, who researches names. “He’s never referred to without that initial.”
Surely some of them were named explicitly for Robert E. Lee, but many—probably most—were not. Wattenberg says that there used to be many people named for General Lee, but nowadays, “homage names are just an endangered species.” If someone chooses to go by the full “Robert E. Lee,” you might reasonably presume that they are trying to play up the Confederate connection, Wattenberg says. But the sports broadcaster Robert Lee is Asian American, and “one knows that broadcaster is not from a family proud of its Confederate ancestry,” she says.
Lee is the 22nd most common last name in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the people who share it are a fairly diverse group. White people make up 40.1 percent of Lees, 37.8 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander, 17.4 percent are black, 1.3 percent are Hispanic, and 1 percent are Native American.
One Robert Lee, who lives in San Francisco and works as a business analyst, didn’t fully understand the significance his name holds in the United States until he went to college. He lived in Hong Kong until he was 18, and then went to Brown University.
Before that, “I knew that [Robert E. Lee] was a general, but I didn’t really know anything about the Civil War or American history at all,” he says. But when people he met at college would casually mention the connection, he asked them about it and learned that way. He says people ask him often what his middle initial is.
“At the beginning I was confused as to why people were asking that question all the time until somebody finally told me,” he says.
In his sophomore year, he became the director of an a cappella group. “I had really high standards and I was used to a strict musical environment,” he says, “so I got the nickname ‘The General.’” He says he didn’t mind it at the time because he didn’t know much about Robert E. Lee. “But after that year I started moving away from it,” he says.
Sharing a name with someone famous (or infamous) means that person will already cast a bit of a shadow over your name. But unlike the 699 Jennifer Lawrences in the United States who are probably just tired of jokey Hunger Games references, the Robert Lees have the larger shadow of America’s fraught history of racism, which endures to the present.
Names shape how we move through the world; they are a shorthand that is used to refer to a person in all their complex humanity. “Robert E. Lee” is shorthand not only for the man himself, but for the Confederacy and all the connotations that carries. It is a way of referring to all the people who served under him who fought to maintain slavery; it is a way of referring to the false alternative history which some would like to preserve, in which Lee was a hero, the Confederacy a romantic lost cause, and the Civil War fought over “states’ rights.” His name has become inextricably linked to the movement to remove statues not only of Lee, but other Confederate figures—and to the white supremacists who violently opposed this removal in Charlottesville.
It might seem silly to think that simply sharing a name with a figure like Lee could have real consequences, but it did for Robert Lee the sports broadcaster. Even without that middle “E.”
“I think ironically ESPN did more harm to the name than the statue did,” Wattenberg says. “Because ESPN just sort of fired a shot across the bow saying that the name Robert Lee—in all of its forms—is now linked to the general and I suspect that a lot of Bob Lees are cursing them right now.”
When I wrote earlier this year about interviewing people who shared my name, Wattenberg told me that names alone really do shape how other people see you. “Your name forms this little pocket of identity around you,” she said. And sometimes, we carry things in that pocket that someone else placed there.
Robert Lee from San Francisco says lately “I have become more aware of the name when I introduce myself. Saying the name out loud, it brings a bunch of different conflicting emotions.”
But “I do like my name,” he says. “I’m named after my godfather, and the last name Lee also runs in the family and represents a lot. I think the importance of your name is really up to you.”
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