What’s in a Name?
Sharon Hurley Hall and Jevin Lortie reflect on implicit bias
”What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” — Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare.
How does your name affect your chances of getting work and the treatment you get? It can be a lot.
As we know implicit bias can rear its head when people are assessing resumes or looking at official forms. In the minds of white recruiters, there’s a perception that some names belong to Black people, while other names belong to “people like us”.
That’s worked for me, and against me. Sharon Hurley (as I was when interviewing), and Sharon Hurley Hall, don’t sound like most people’s perception of Black names (which isn’t a thing, by the way, as there are as many Black people with names inherited from the colonizers, as there are with names adopted or adapted from African languages).
So, it often means that I get through the door before people realize I’m not what they’re looking for. I talked about one notable experience of that in Interviewing While Black, but there have been others.
The Double-Take: Interviewing While Black
The double-take. It’s that moment when you walk into a room and your interviewers realize that, despite your anglicized…
In the days before social media, when all people had to go on was your resume, mine was usually enough to earn me an interview for most jobs I applied for. But then would come the inevitable double-take, and that would often be the end of that.
Once they saw me, the usual prejudices would rear their heads, and they’d be surprised by my command of English, experience, and more. I’ve often wondered if they interrogated me so closely because they thought I was making it up.
I have to admit, I thought this only happened to BIPOC folks. But then I read a piece by Jevin Lortie about having a Black name.
Here’s a few things Jevin noticed growing up with a traditionally Black name:
At the beginning of each school year I was met with a raised eyebrow as the teacher called out my name, saw the color of my skin, and paused while they quickly processed and collected themselves. It was a brief micro-reaction that I didn’t comprehend until I was much older. A substitute teacher once thought I was messing with them and had switched names with another student.
It wasn’t until high school, when I started dating, that the implications of my name hit me. On several occasions, a new girlfriend would tell me, “my parents thought you were Black when I told them your name.”
When meeting the parents, they’ve even had a chuckle and told me, “When we heard your name, we thought you were Black.”
I can imagine the conversation. It demonstrates implicit bias that the next question her parents asked after hearing my name was, “Oh, is he Black?” That same question wouldn’t have been asked if my name was John, Matthew, or Thomas, even though those can be Black names, too. It’s a microaggression, just like asking a non-white person, “Where are you from?” It implies that there is a normal and an other; an in-group and an out-group.
It’s impossible to know for how many jobs my name didn’t get me in the door, but I would assume one for every employer that gave Sharon the double-take when they saw she wasn’t white.
I’m glad my parents named me after a black man. Something as little as that can help us see what it could be like to live in someone else’s shoes. I can’t fully understand what it’s like to be Black in America, but my name gives me the tiniest window into the prejudice that BIPOC folks deal with on a daily basis.
Like it or not, when people read or hear our names, they make assumptions about our ethnicity and our culture. And those, in turn lead to other assumptions about our suitability for opportunities or jobs. Those assumptions can literally stop you from getting your dream job. And that’s one big problem with implicit bias.
Pardon, Your Bias is Showing (Working While Black)
True stories of racial microaggressions in the workplace — part of Sharon Hurley Hall’s “Working While Black” series.
Ask yourself this: if you heard the two names Jevon and Sharon, which one would you assume was Black and which one white? In this case at least, you’d probably be totally wrong.
Our challenge to you is to challenge yourself. See where implicit bias is playing a role in your decisions about hiring people and socializing, and do better.