Home Culture Name-Based Racism and Discrimination is Real

Name-Based Racism and Discrimination is Real

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Wow Keisha, you speak so well. Where'd you go to school?
Wow Keisha, you speak so well. Where’d you go to school?

One morning a few years ago, I went to my office early to get some work done. I heard a few recruiters across the room talking about an applicant from Atlanta. I wasn’t paying much attention, but you know how sometimes you just hear stuff because people are loud? Yeah, it was one of those moments. And things were cool until I heard laughter followed by “Let me call Tanneisha and see how ghetto she is.”

Yes, this came from the mouth of a bubbly White woman…in the office…loud as hell…like that sh*t was cool. The worst part wasn’t what she said. It was the laughter that both silently and boisterously condoned her ignorant choice of words. And though I was already one of two lone Black people working in this national company, that incident was a reminder that racism (Or racial ignorance for those that think racism is dead. Bless your heart.) was and still is very much alive. Even in the workplace.

Once the laughter subsided, my chest reminded me of childhood asthma and my palms felt like I was getting ready for the biggest speaking engagement of my life. Hell, it was the biggest speech of my life. However brief it would be, I was about to lecture a White person on why what she said was wrong and how it made me feel. That’s not easy to do.

It took me a few minutes to get myself together. What was I gonna say? How was I gonna say it in a way that didn’t make me come off as angry or easily offended Black guy that steals the fun from the office? How would I not confirm the stereotypes in her head?

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About 20 minutes later, I made the longest short walk of my life across the office. There were probably five people in the area. I started to ask her if she could come speak to me in a room, but realized I wanted everyone to hear what I had to say. With my mouth dry and tension in my chest, I quickly dealt with it.

“Hey, I heard what you said about that candidate. I know a Tanneisha and she’s a Harvard MBA grad doing well in life. You shouldn’t judge people when you know nothing about them other than their name.”

Everyone just looked at me. Eyes wide. Mouths shut. Her bubbliness fell flat.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. Really really sorry.”

And that was it. I went back to my desk and never heard anything like that again.

It was a win in the moment, but when you think about it, it was the scratched surface of a much more pervasive issue that still exists today. So it was no surprise to me when I heard that Keisha Austin changed her name to Kylie.

I can’t imagine what it’s like growing up and being teased for having a “ghetto” name by white peers that only know white. That’s not my reality. But I can tell you I’ve seen enough name-based racism and discrimination to last a lifetime. In the years I’ve spent recruiting, I’ve only placed one Black person, and that was last week. I’ve reviewed the resumes of tons of Black applicants, and when I see a name that looks familiar and a profile that checks out on paper, I silently root for the person to pull through in an interview. Not because I think they’re inferior, but because I know the odds will already be stacked against them because of the gift their parent(s) bestowed upon them.

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I’ve seen a lot of opinions over the last couple days about Keisha changing her name to Kylie. Many saying her mom didn’t do a good enough job instilling confidence. Others call it a weak move and submission to a messed up a system. I think it’s a sad reality. I also know many Black folks that have altered their names to avoid any bias a recruiter or hiring manager may have based on the name they see on paper.

What do they do? They drop all the letters from their first name except the first one, add a period, and go by their middle name on applications. Lamar Alexander becomes L. Daniel Alexander. Keisha Williams becomes K. Lee Williams. Shameka Goodwin becomes S. Marie Goodwin. So if we’re gonna be mad at Keisha for becoming Kylie, we should also be mad at people that hack their names to optimize for career success…or should we?

The truth is, people do what they think is necessary to live a happier life. And for some of us, that means altering our name the best we can so that we avoid the first round of stereotypes. I say first round because more than likely there will be another round when the White interviewer(s) sees us in person. In fact, those stereotypes may never go away. We’ll constantly feel the need to prove or change ourselves in some way, even if there’s not anything there. It’s just what we’ve come to expect.

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I do think things have gotten better over the years, but to ignore the fact that one’s name can impact how they’re perceived, and in turn effect how they view themselves, is just as ignorant as the bubbly girl picking up the phone expecting to speak to a Real Housewife or someone that joined the Bad Girls Club in college.

Besides, it’s easier to change a name than to change someone’s predisposition to ignorance. So sometimes to succeed or feel free, you do what needs to be done.

That doesn’t mean we should stop fighting the fight. All we can do is keep promoting awareness and doing our best to be our best. Not because the chips are stacked against us, but because we wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s the difficult and lifelong task at hand. I know that, even as a Rich.

This post originally appeared on The Freedom Chase.

Comment(20)

  1. I’m in a lose lose situation I guess, my middle name is just as “ghetto” (if that’s what some people call it) as my first name. So I guess I’ll just have to do my best to work around it. I think the only way this will change is if we get more people in HR department with / familiar with these “ghetto” or “ethnic” names and don’t view them as some type of hindrance.

  2. I have heard things of that nature. It said my name is an Indian (not Native American the other one) so when I used to go to interview they would be surprised to see an African American walk thru the door.

    But I feel bad for the kids who's parents have given them those types of names, beaasue most are judged on it before they even get the job.
    My recent post Ask Amy Juicebox

  3. This is absolutely a real issue that I've experience first hand. I was laid off a few years ago, and while I was job searching I had a mentor who was an HR professional suggest I tried using my middle name. A bit reluctant, I did and started getting WAY more calls for interviews than before. Luckily I'm in a position now where either name isn't an issue.

  4. I worked in recruiting for many years and unfortunately i have seen it happen dozens of times. Although my fellow recuriters never said the words out loud, the applicants with ethnic names were always passed over without any thought. I do believe we need to bring awareness, but I also think its a sad truth that this is the world we live in right now and if you want your kids to thrive in it, you may have to think about naming them something else. So sad, but the truth.

  5. Here are my thoughts, in the order of how they come in the article:

    1) I'm glad you stood up to the woman and the group of people in your office. They need to be put in their place. But unfortunately it won't change their minds about us (nothing we say or do will), it will just keep them from speaking about it AS MUCH. Publicly.

    2) Regarding Keisha Austin, from what I've read she lives in a predominantly white area and doesn't seem like she had many positive black examples to look up to. It's a shame that she couldn't leave all that negativity regarding her name behind her in school once she turned 18 (and I'm assuming she has graduated from high school). The girl is (in my opinion) clearly biracial. Changing her name doesn't mean that she is exempt from discrimination. I've definitely walked into a few job interviews and watched how people's faces dropped once they saw that I'm black (my name doesn't give away my ethnicity, I graduated from a Catholic university and majored in classical music and that is listed in my resume.. soo….who would you expect to see show up? Most likely not a black person).

    3) White people, specifically Anglos have butchered names of many different ethnic groups since the current America was founded. Ellis Island anyone? Because of their own ignorance and hate, they didn't care to pronounce or spell Greek, French, Eastern European, etc. names correctly. Whites have been making it easier for themselves to make everyone else feel bad about their ethnicity and culture so that starts with our names. When it comes to us changing our names for jobs we are doing just that all over again, except we are doing it to ourselves. And making them feel better in the end.

    Across the grid we're starting to own our own large businesses more and more. Hopefully in the years to come blacks will see the good in starting our own businesses and could care less about changing our names. We need to take our pride back.

  6. "Besides, it’s easier to change a name than to change someone’s predisposition to ignorance. So sometimes to succeed or feel free, you do what needs to be done.:" This right here is the truth. I hope people that are so critical of Keisha and anyone else for changing their name keep that in mind. As you said Slim all the time, every day we do things to make our lives easier. It's a natural human instinct. Nobody purposely wants to live life harder than what it should be if they can do something about it. Can't knock anyone for doing what they feel is right for them, especially if 9 times out of 10 you would do the very same.

  7. Fortunately, my dad purposely named me after a white woman that worked at the bank he banked at, lol. He told me he was very mindful of how my name would affect my life when he named me. My brothers and sister all have common nuetral names as well, like my brother James Trevor.
    I guess the fact that I have some European folks in my family may help out a bit too, lol.
    I was the opposite and didn't like my "white name." I wanted a black name that ended in an A, lol. However, once I started noticing how I was treated in school and when I was an adult how it did aid me in getting jobs I was thankful to my dad for putting so much consideration and thought into my name and how it would affect my life. (and no my real name isn't Bree). *smile*

  8. More and more I'm seeing a trend of white people having more "ethnic" names. I wonder what they're saying about that……..
    I recently met an old white man named Tyrone. Was told it was a very old name and common in those days for boys. Knew a white woman named Letha. A white woman that does a "Dear Abby" type of advice column is named Eugenia, just like my black friend named after her father Eugene.
    So we're not the only ones. And don't get me started on Persians and Indians.

  9. Unfortunately, racism is still very much apart of the workplace. I have been at my job for 8 years and I'm the only black person there. One black male has been hired in the 8 years and he lasted about a year before he left. As an IT guy he was never taken seriously and his ideas were never considered to be good that is until his white replacement came and had the same ideas then they were valid good ones. I secretly routed for the black woman who came in to interview for a receptionist position. She had a universal name and I witnessed first hand the shock that the HR had on her face when she met her. In 8 years my company has hired at least 30-40 people and not one black has ever interviewed. I have been offended so many times until I've lost track. But what do we do when we need our paychecks and gainful employment is so hard to find?
    My recent post She’s A Home Wrecker: Website Exposes “The Other Woman”

  10. I'm black… and I do this all the time. See anything ending in -sha or -shia, I am assuming I am going to get a ghetto accent. Honestly I would rather focus on having out people sound more professional. Also, I don't care what my future wife says …No ghetto names. Names lack class.

    1. I also would never name my child something hood. If I were married and my husband wanted to name our child something ghetto, I would ask him to get his head checked.

  11. I'm more surprised that the writer of this article didn't bring up the fact that giving your child a ghetto name is just a bad idea in general. These names don't mean anything. They don't represent anything and they remind people of ignorance. Naming your child Taneisha, Kookeela, Mykeva, Myesha is setting them up for failure. How hard is it to look up an actual African name? And it's not just white people who have problems with these kinds of names. My parents were smart enough to give me a name that I can be proud of and it's always been irritating when people ask me if "L" stands for "LaToya". It's at the point now where if you are a Black Woman people are more shocked when you don't have a ghetto name. Perhaps we should evaluate our own people first.

  12. I'm sorry but while a Keisha or a Tanisha (Tenisha) shouldn't evoke that kind of vitriol, there are those of us who "doom" our children by trying to be creative, cute, exotic, etc. If you name your kid Mekalekahymekahinyho, then they are going to be prejudged and to a agree they deserve to be. Those simple names like Tyrone, Keisha, etc. to me aren't "ethnic" but trying to be deep and naming a kid Lexdavian or Bugatti just wreaks of rachetness. Even beautiful names like Kadijah or Aaliyah, garner laughs and looks by the white establishment, and unless they are going to be in the sports or entertainment field, are going to have the same issues. I'm not saying its right but it is reality.

  13. Eh. I think everyone saying "I'm not going to name my child something ghetto" is avoiding the issue. There are made up names out that really are just made up without any thought for the child but that's just part of the larger issue and also something else all together(narcissism & adolescent pregnancy) . The point is that if you don't have a name that is approved and used by whites then it's considered ghetto. Keisha and Antoine are going to have a lot of trouble getting jobs just as much as anybody whose name blacks consider ghetto.

    Also a lot of people neglect to think about what your skin color has to do with it. I have a super generic name that most would consider white. Similar to something like John Smith. Countless times I've walked into interviews or offices and watched everyone's facial expression change. Even other minorities. There's no getting around that. If they can pass judgement based only on your name, what about your skin?

  14. i have a very white name. the most it will do is help me out on my job application but once i get on the phone its hard to speak like a white person even though my grammar is on point. even if they think i so called "speak well" (which is a diss) once i get into the interview room i am 6'2 dark skin 200. i used to be around 260. even though i have never had any type of criminal history whatsoever – to the interviewer i'm scary. especially to young white men and black women (in a corporate space).

    they don't seem to mind when i go for a low-wage type job like retail or restaurant work though. have known that since i been a kid which is why i have my own graphic design business and eat off that. they simply do not want strong black men in a corporate space because you become a threat to the young weak white man who thinks you will take his spot or to the black woman who can't control you.

    black women are protected by affirmative action laws more than men so yall have it better but not by a very large margin. they may discriminate against you because of your initial behavior or your name because they think you will miss alot of time due to criminal court shit like domestic violence or illegitimate maternity.

    really and truly all of this could be solved by more black entrepreneurship so we don't have to cow tow to the "man" and we can employ ourselves then employ one another. but hey what do i know about that?

  15. Great article and true! However, this behavior is indicative of a more substantial subjective attitude in corporations and in the country in general. And ANY name that is not mainstream from any group regardless of race will face this situation. As the largest minority group it affects African Americans most often. But it will also affect men trying to become nurses and women trying to become underwater circuit welders. Virtually every problem in modern day society is a result of this subjective rather then objective behavior.

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