What's In A Name? If You're Black, Not A Job

I share a first name with the Queen of England. My last name's as Irish as they come.

Over the years, I've come across a few people who've had a difficult time reconciling the name they've seen on paper with my live and in technicolor skin tone. Give me a dollar for every time I've heard, "You're totally not what I expected" and I'm sure I could go snap up something cute at the mall with the cash.

But what if my name was a more so-called "typical black name" like, for example, "LaKeisha Jones"? What would my experience be?

Every once in awhile an article comes out that says yes, people make racist hiring decisions once they see a more ethnic/black sounding name. With so many people looking for work and black folks being the hardest hit by the current recession, what's the non-white job seeker supposed to do?

This past weekend the New York Times ran a piece called "Whitening The Resume" about black people making sure their resumes are race-neutral in order to get a foot in the door.

"Experts said that course might be wise. Research has shown that applicants with black-sounding names get fewer callbacks than those with white-sounding names, even when they have equivalent credentials. Affirmative action programs in the private sector have largely receded since the early 1980s, replaced by a variety of diversity efforts rarely shown to be effective in raising minority representation."
This means that on her resume LaKeisha Jones might morph her name into a more race-neutral "L.K. Jones". The hope is that human resource departments will think that L.K. Jones is white, and will then grant her an interview.

The article goes on to explain how not just names should be altered to get an interview. If LaKeisha's been president of her local Urban League or NAACP -- which shows evidence of leadership and achievement that any hiring manager should want to know about -- it's apparently in her best interests to leave this off. One, it's a clue that she might be black, and two, managers might worry they're going to get one of those militant, Fight The Power black people. You know, the kind of black person who doesn't sit idly by while shady, racist things happen at their place of employment.

Some people say that in this day and age you just gotta do what you gotta do to get a job, and if that requires passing for white on paper, so be it. Call me crazy but I have a feeling this sort of thing is not what Malcolm X meant when he said, "By any means necessary." -- Not to mention denying who you truly are may cause emotional, physical and spiritual damage. But hey, at least you'll have a job so you can pay your rent. Right?

Although the "experts" say this by any means necessary subterfuge to get your foot in the door is the right thing to do, this "solution" feels more like demonstrating a lack of integrity as well as going along with racist hiring practices.

Sure, some people might say it's easy for me to say this when no one has ever thought I'm black just by seeing my name on a piece of paper. But my thinking is if this racism in hiring is so widespread, every company should be talking about this, and they should face disciplinary action and public scorn when there's tangible, concrete proof that they're NOT granting interviews based on merit.

Getting that proof is, of course, the tough part. Every company uses the same code language. "You weren't the right fit. We're looking for someone with X kind of experience."

Neither of my sons have traditional names. One of the boys has a French name and the other's name is from Uganda. My husband and I chose each of their names because of the role models their namesakes provide. Both boys are named after historically significant black men who sacrificed their lives in the pursuit of justice, equality and human rights.

Given the legacy that my son's names represent. it angers me that the social and psychological weight of racism is so deep that my children might one day see their names as liabilities rather than assets.

I tell myself that President Obama doesn't have a traditional name but he still "made" it... And then I remember how racist people still ridicule, mock and intentionally mispronounce his name. I remember how his name is supposed to represent that he's not truly an American and he's part of some nefarious plot to turn the United States into an Islamic republic. (Or is it a communist state? I can't keep the psychosis straight.)

In my more light-hearted moments I joke to myself about how the solution is for white people to suddenly begin naming their kids LaKeisha, Trevionte, Quindravion, and LaTasha just to confuse and spite racist hiring managers. Alas, I have a feeling this is not going to happen!

I can only hope that by the time my sons are hunting for real jobs, hiring managers will have learned that they can't assume that some names are "white" and others are "black", and then discriminate against the black ones.

If that doesn't change, and if the deep seated racism that runs through our society (intentional or not) does not change, getting rejected from a company because of their names is in both of my son's futures. But trust me, there will never be a day where I advise them to "whiten" themselves in any way in order to get ahead.


nick said…
A very tricky one, Liz. The exact same thing happens in the UK, journalists have done experiments where a black-sounding person gets no interviews and a white-sounding person gets loads. It's a sickening prejudice but it goes on all the time and unfortunately disguising your skin colour on the application does get results. I agree it's really phoney to give a false impression like that but if you're desperate for a job, what to do? I know what a big advantage it is to have an obviously "white" name, though at my age I think hidden ageism comes into play instead.
Unknown said…
I wonder what President BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA's opinion on this article would be.
Val said…
I agree with you, Liz. Why is the responsibility put on Black people rather than White HR managers?

This reminds me of how Bill Cosby blasts Black mothers for naming their kids "Black sounding" names. Why not blast Whites and others who exclude people with those names.

And people think we don't need affirmative action any longer.
Jameil said…
I read that article or a similar one in the NYT and was appalled. I mean clearly my name is Jameil & I include my award from a black journalist org. & membership in the Charlotte Area Black Filmmakers Assn. My name's pretty black. I'm not going to de-blackify myself. I can't worry about what jobs I'll lose out on because of my name. If my experience doesn't speak for itself, that's not a company I want to work for anyway. One of my aunts tried to get me to wear a wig to a job interview saying I might not get hired because I had natural hair. Again, I said, if they can't get past my hair, I REALLY wouldn't want to work there.
Dirty Red said…
If it ain't one thing it is another. But this is not surprising though. Everytime somebody Black gets close to the finish line the powers that be call a time out and change the rules.
miss e. said…
I have a very "white" sounding name but I am African American. I'm currently looking for a new job and what really sucks is getting an interview, but when I arrive they're *shocked* that I'm so and so. I've had potential employers rave about my resume and experience over the phone and then they loose that enthusiasm when they meet me in person. I even had one woman phone interview me and give me the job over the phone, but when I arrived she said "this isn't going to work." Hmm...I wonder why? My qualifications hadn't changed.
Remnants of U said…
Yes, a name can fool someone that is going to discriminate.

One specific time I remember the look on a hotel manager's face. We (my white co-worker & I) had to wait an unusually long time for our rooms, and our company got it corrected. But he was soo surprised when the one with the more Catholic sounding name (Me)got the key for the room on the preferred guest floor. He couldn't take it back LOL!

I may have to blog about that one day soon. LOL
Liz Dwyer said…
I've seen those kinds of exposes on TV here as well. But the behavior, the discriminatory practice continues unabated. It's hard because, like you say, if you're desperate, you're more likely to compromise your beliefs and do something like this. -- I totally believe that ageism comes into play more than our society likes to acknowledge.

Ms. Wooden Shoes,
That would be interesting to know, but what I'm realizing more and more is that he's the macro level. People have to change their hearts, their actions in regard to race on the micro level.

That's what really bothers me about this. Why is it our responsibility to adjust to behavior and actions that are racist and wrong?

We sure do need affirmative action precisely because of stuff like this.

A wig? Oh noes. And you're right, if they can't handle you're blackness, you don't want to work there. I wish this story had interviewed someone who could've shared this point of view.

Dirty Red,
We need to be the ones changing the finish line and rejecting the idea of "whitening" up a resume. But if we don't hold positions of power in businesses, how can we do this? And sadly, sometimes if there's a person of color in an HR office, they also discriminate against other POC's!
K Jones said…
Actually, my name is 'Keisha Jones' (I kid you not). I am currently pursuing my undergraduate degree, so I have not experienced any job discrimination-yet. This makes me scared for the future.
Liz Dwyer said…
Miss E.,
That makes me SO mad. What did the woman give as the reason it wouldn't work? -- And you can't sue for discrimination if you have no real proof. It's just wrong. Seriously wrong.

I kind of like moments like that - where you want to be all "How you like me now!" because of the shock on the person's face.
Liz Dwyer said…
K Jones,
It makes me feel a little scared, too, but then I tell myself that that's what racists want. They want to scare us into "whitening" ourselves up. You keep being outstanding and go for yours. Like Jameil said, if they don't hire you because of your color, you probably don't want to work there.
Rosita said…
I get the same thing, only with a twist. I am white with Spanish first name and an Chadian last name. I have always known this kind of discrimination existed, but I got a new perspecitve when I started looking for a job after I got married. Before I took my husband's name, I never had an issue getting an interview. Afterward, after sending out literally over 100 resumes in response to job opening, I got 2 interviews. And at both, I was told that they weren't expecting me.

Even so, we have chose to give our boys Chadian first names (which is what they go by) and English second names. We want them to be proud of their heritage. And like miss e. said, having an english name doesn't guarentee the job either.
Nerd Girl said…
I read that same article. I have a very African first name and had a very African last name for the first 26 years of my life, until I married. Not African American - straight from the motherland African.

When I was on the job hunt I had several people tell me to use my initials, etc. so the hiring manager wouldn't initially know I was black. So not happening. I am a tall, black woman with dreadlocks and an African name. Can't deal with it? Next. I am not perming my hair, hunching my shoulders, bleaching my skin nor altering my name to make anyone comfortable with extending an offer of any type to me.

I have one child and I very deliberately gave her an African name. I hope that I can raise her and instill in her the same sense of pride that my parents instilled in me. I would love to believe that by the time she is ready for employment this won't even be an issue, but I'm afraid that won't be the case.
Sharifa said…
I am guilty of whitening the resume insofar that I started going by my Anglo middle name plus Anglo married last name seven odd years ago. While I do agree that this should not be necessary, I was just tired of the hassle of having a strange and exotic name for people to mangle. After that experience I insisted on our son having a common first name - it ended up being in the top five for his birth year in Sweden so almost a bit too common. Still, if my husband gets his way and we move to the US it will be more unusual.
Eve said…
One of the things that makes this so disturbing is that there is just no concrete proof that a person of color will not get a job simply because they're a person of color. And I know super liberal HR managers who would swear up and down that they would never discriminate - but they have no answer for me when I ask them why the companies they work for have almost no black employees.

As a Latina, it's impossible for me to pass - my last name gives my Mexican heritage all away. And yeah, sometimes I wonder if that has anything to do with some of the jobs I've not gotten.

A few months ago, I actually (yes, I'm ashamed) told my sister-in-law (she took my brother's last name) to put her maiden (white-sounding) name on her resume. She asked me if I really thought it would help. I told her that in this economy, every little bit can help.

I'm sure I was wrong to do so - but I was desperate to try to help her.
Lotus Flower said…
Hmm..I've thought about this a lot myself, Liz. My name sounds foreign so it doesn't fall into "black-sounding" or "white-sounding" category. My real name, that is. I always get the question "Where are you from?" from hiring managers over the phone. My answer? Chesterfield County.
Unknown said…
Sad but true! Had the hugest fight with a 18yr old family member who was recently pregnant and wanted to name her child something very ethnic (she is trying to change that very ethnic name as we speak-very difficult to do.)

While I have managed with my VERY ethnic name - I highly relate to this subject matter, having being spit at early in my young career by a superior.

It is sad by true. I, in response to my experience, gave my kiddo a strong, solid, basic Yiddish name, potential schools/employers will be completely dumbfounded,just in case when he grows we're still in the same bucket of crap!
Baiskeli said…
The responsibility not to be biased should be on the HR managers. It shouldn't be our (minorities) responsibility to work our way around the biases of the hiring manager.

And the name thing is a losing strategy or a very marginal one. I'm black, but I have a stereotypically white sounding name and a vaguely British accent. I can tell you that there have been a number of jobs where I lost the job between talking on the phone and walking in.

A few years ago, a study was done in Boston and Philadelphia that found that black sounding names got called 50% fewer than white sounding names. NPR did a program on it, and they had the HR manager of a large multi-national company. If there is any justice in the world, she lost her job as soon as she was done with the interview. She was asked about the disparity and here were her exact words

"If I'm looking at a resume and the name is hard to pronounce, of course I'm not going to be paying attention to the qualifications"

I was utterly gob-smacked. I think this was on On Point and might be available on the NPR web site.
Liz Dwyer said…
I can't tell you how much I appreciate everybody's honesty on this subject. I feel like a second post on this topic is burning in my brain... I'll try to respond to your comments later on this afternoon. AAGH, busy life!
Okay - I'm a little old school on this. Coming from parents who got to vote for the first time when they were in their early 30s and were relocated from the segregated south to the north...we have a history of naming our children "resume" names.

Technically we as a country should have moved passed this but historically as a nation we haven't. And you know that whenever situations get tight, like people draw the wagons around themselves to protect their own.

You didn't mention the part of the article that discussed the fact that word of mouth jobs were filled by more white males and/or their family members and contacts rather than minorities because we just don't have the contacts.

This is America...yes we should be better because we have somehow managed to elect a black man with a funny name President but it is amazing how many white people believe that since he is President that racism is dead!

Yeah that's why Google had to delete a picture of MO with certain gorilla features.

Do I think you should be concerned for your sons and their ability to find employment in the future - hell yes! Do I think this is fair? Hell no! And maybe your sons generation will change things because I have no hope for my own.
intabiz said…
I think this issue should be looked at from a more wider perspective.
This issue is two fold
1) Black people need to form a foundation and by that i mean we need to have more black lawyers fighting our concerns, more black doctors, dentists, architects, planners, business owners etc (that way we are more respected as a people) This is what the Asians have done in Britain in a very short time.
2) Black people need to get over their own fear of employing fellow black people. (Lets face facts, we are our own worst enemies).
I dont believe the issue is racism alone, it is mostly fear from all angles eg the white HR manager asks himself, will this black man or woman fit in, the black HR manager asks himself, will this black man or woman threaten my position in any way if i hire him/her

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