Ethnic/Black Names and the Job Hunt

Yesterday, someone tried to leave the following comment on my Dijonnaise post:

And every one of them was black. Guaranteed.

I didn’t approve the comment, but I did find it interesting. And timely.

Several days ago, reader C in DC directed me to a transcript of The Kojo Nnamdi Show. This particular show had to do with the issues/struggles female prisoners face upon release. One caller suggested that black-sounding first names may impede reintegration:

I have known three black women, one of whom was incarcerated previously, and the other two had difficulties in their life that didn’t involve incarceration. And all three of them had birth names on their birth certificate, names like Shiquanda (sp?) or Jamezeta (sp?), names that basically screamed out, you know, I was born black, poor neighborhood

The caller noted that all three women “ended up legally changing their names” and “they all experienced considerable success after that change.”

Who knows if the caller was telling the truth, but he could be–it’s not outside of the realm of possibility–and that’s the important part.

Several studies and mounds of anecdotal evidence suggest that snap judgments about names may keep certain people (or, more significantly, certain groups of people) from being treated fairly when they apply for jobs.

And I’m not just talking about African-American names. I’m talking Spanish (“Mexican”) names, Muslim/Arabic names…just about any name that doesn’t sound mainstream or “white.”

I’m also not just talking about the United States. This type of discrimination has been observed in New Zealand, Australia, Germany, and other places with minority populations.

The Kojo Nnamdi caller brings up a good point: some names can indeed be a hindrance. Here’s a telling quote from résumé consultant Tammy Kabell:

I’ve had frank discussions with HR managers and hiring mangers in the corporate world, and they tell me when they see a name that’s ethnic or a black name, they perceive that person as having low education or coming from a lower socioeconomic class.

So what advice should we give former female prisoners with names like Shiquanda and Jamezeta who are having trouble getting a job?

Do we mention that people with more common (“whiter”) names sometimes have an easier time landing an interview? Do we suggest that they use their first initial instead of their first name? Do we recommend they take the drastic step of legally changing their first name? Or…is it racist to even make suggestions like these?

Would love to hear your thoughts.

(Also, thank you to C in DC for sending me the link to the transcript!)


12 thoughts on “Ethnic/Black Names and the Job Hunt

  1. “So what advice should we give … ”

    I think that depends wholly on who “we” are. I think this is best left to in-group discussion. The ramifications of black people’s naming choices should be left to black people. White transracial adoptive parents are a whole other kettle of fish but their naming decisions need to be informed more by black people than by white. Why should white people, in general, be weighing in on the relative merits of cultural expression, heritage preservation, assimilation, job prospects … ? White people do not need to be privy to those discussions.

    Instead of thinking about black people’s naming choices, I think the better question for white people is what are we (I’m white) going to do about our discriminating against people with so-called black names and our leveraging our white privilege in our own names and naming?

  2. Well said, Karen. As a biracial (very white looking) person who’s been through fascinating courses on social justice and prejudice, I don’t think I’ve ever read a perspective as well worded as that.

  3. Karen, thinking of the “we” in terms of race does make a big difference. Thanks for bringing that up.

    I guess I’d been thinking of the “we” on more of a micro-level. Specifically, as people who work with former prisoners and want to see them find jobs.

    For instance, let’s say the “we” is a group of social workers. Should these social workers broach the topic of name discrimination? Should they make recommendations like “use a nickname, not your real first name” if they believe these recommendations will help their clients become employed?

    (And, of course, this discussion encompasses more than just Af-Am names. It’s also Hispanic names, Arabic names, Indian names, Chinese names, etc.)

  4. THANK YOU for actually making this a topic in a post. I have a black friend who, just a few months ago, was telling me that she named all of her kids with “white” names instead of naming them after family members (which her husband wanted to do) because she “didn’t want those black names to hold them back.” While I love that she used some of my favourite names for her children, I’m so sad that she felt she couldn’t honour her family members just because people make snap judgements on ethnic names and she didn’t want her kids to suffer because of it.

    On the subject of baby naming- I would never advise someone against using a name that highlights their heritage, but I would definitely caution them about choosing a name that is either A) incredibly stigmatized, or B) exceptionally uncommon where they live/work. And that goes for any ethnicity- even whites! A white girl named Juanita and a Japanese girl named Shaniqua are going to stand out among people of their own heritage (and therefore be judged more harshly on paper because of the difference) just as much as a Mexican girl named Marisol and a black girl named Shaniqua are going to stand out among their ethnic opposites.

    That said, everyone is going to have their own image that goes along with a name, and that’s going to affect people, too- especially when a name is alot less common. My mother and grandmother think Shalimar is a beautiful name because of the perfume, so their first impression of someone with that name is positive. When I hear it, however, I just think of the big, fat bully in my 7th grade. So I admit that I’d be prejudiced against that NAME (not the person) on an application because of my own history with it. And you can’t predict that when naming a child, because everyone has different experiences! However, if you have a name that’s uncommon in the world you are trying to work in, then I would be prepared for people to pass judgements based on that name. Maybe going by a nickname, middle name or even just a first initial would be a way to get your foot in the door. And I say that to Shiquanda, Juanita, Fatima AND Eugenia.

  5. Taking this to a broader level, I’d like to see everyone apply for jobs just using initials or a number. A name is the most superficial piece of information on a job application. It allows potential employers to assume something with no basis, and it often stops the process before it’s even really begun.

  6. @C in DC – I think that’s a great idea. Makes me wonder if any companies out there have ever experimented with “nameless” hiring (at least in the initial stages – job applications, résumés).

  7. @Nancy. There are many recruiting firms and HR departments in Canada that strip names from resumes before forwarding them to the hiring manager. Though this has far from eliminated the disadvantage of non-white names in call-back rates over-all, though it does improve call-back rates at those specific firms.

  8. WHY cant people just give regular names like Bob, Bill, John, Jenifer, or Sue?
    i had to “Americanize” my name myself, and usuallu go by Richie, or Dick..i wish i was given a “regular” name

  9. I think about this a great deal. I’m sure my name which is neutral name in the US has helped me, my siblings have names that immediately designate them as not white American. But I don’t think they would change them.
    The issue is more serious when they are names that designate class as well as race or ethnicity.
    Making people aware of how their names will be read can be valuable as long as it’s done with tact and without pressure.
    To be honest I cringe when I hear a little boy being called Lexus for example–not so much because of what it seems to imply, but because I assume that the boy has a mother who loved him so much that she sought to give him a name she equated with status and prestige, but this will be read in a completely different way by much of the world. If she knew the discrimination her child would face and chose it still I would assume the name, whatever I think of it was really special and she decided it was worth it, but I suspect that this is rarely the case.

    To return to the question at hand, people should know how their names may be viewed, obscuring this information seems perhaps even more cruel than having the unpleasant task of telling them. That said it should be done with tact and suggestions to help them navigate their job search both with their original name and without it. This way they can make an educated choice about how to proceed with or without their original name.

  10. @Taqah – Thanks for your thoughts! I tend to agree — there really ought to be a tactful discussion about how others (maybe not all, but certainly some) will judge a person’s name. And then that person can made an educated decision (as you said) about using their name or not.

  11. Very late comment…. But a number of these themes certainly affected me when naming my children. Amongst some white “groovy lefty progressives” names that reflect Australia’s aboriginal heritage have become a bit popular. These names I am yet to hear in the metropolitan Aboriginal communities I am part of. Most of us with Aboriginal ancestry in my region have fairly ordinary Anglo names, which reflects a particularly nasty outcome of a multi generational history of assimilation (the Stolen Generations).
    I wanted a name for my first born, a boy, to be something slightly unusual, but not “out there”. I wanted him to have a name that he would probably not share with classmates, as I and his father did, but that was not so unusual that people would look askance when they heard it. I wanted a name that would be both suitable for a wee boy and for an adult man, that would not mark him as either ” factory fodder” or a power broker in a conservative political party, whilst being a name that would not be out of place in either. I wanted a name that would not date him to a particular time or celebrity or fashion. What did his father and I choose? Oliver, and his preferred diminutive, Ov.
    I must admit, I was not nearly so thoughtful in naming my second son or daughter; both their names were the only names that came to me during pregnancy, and both of them come from Irish history/ legend; Ciaran and Niamh. But both these names do fulfil the criteria I explored with Oliver. Appropriate for any future career, not overly popular, but not unheard of in our country, not too heavy for a child, yet not infantilising for an adult.
    And their surname? A blending of their parents’ family names, which suits their given names, does not carry negative, or implied negative, cultural assumptions, and is a regularly occurring, although not in the “top 100” occurring family names.
    The silly, racially specific, outrageous, and banal names have been given to our pets, after all, they don’t really mind what their names reflect on future curriculums vitae!

  12. In the news today: A St. Louis woman named Hermeisha (after her father Herman) applied for a job at a health clinic. The email response reportedly stated, “Unfortunately we do not consider candidates that have suggestive ‘ghetto’ names.” (Source)

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