I can’t pronounce my son’s last name

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My husband and I didn’t argue about my son’s first name. We argued about the last name. At first, I didn’t have a strong opinion, so we gave my son my husband’s name: Rodriguez.

But then I got cold feet. I worried that our son would face discrimination for his name. My husband said, “Don't worry, I get it all the time. He'll get used to it.”

I was surprised to hear that my husband experiences discrimination. Part of seeing someone as a minority is seeing him as other. So, because he's my husband, I don't think of him as a minority. But here's an example he gave me: He works with a think tank that researches solutions to homelessness. Sometimes when he meets with leaders of homeless shelters, the leaders mistake my husband for one of the homeless. This never happens to his counterpart: Jay Alexander .

But my husband kept telling me it doesn't matter. He said that to me once a week for nine months until I believed him.

What did I know? I have never had a name that identifies me as a minority, so I don't know what it's like. My great-grandfather changed the family name so that it would not sound Jewish and his sons could get through Harvard's quota system. (The change worked, they got in.) In the family tradition of changing one's name for one's politics, I changed my last name when I was in my early twenties because I didn't want to be part of a patriarchal naming structure. (In this case, I'm not sure if the change did anything.)

My husband always says, “It's no big deal.” But now I am sure that it is a big deal.

A recent study from the University of Chicago and MIT shows that people who have names that are typically from minorities are much less likely to get a job. In this study, hundreds of fake resumes with very similar qualifications were sent in response to entry-level job advertisements. A resume from a name like Amy Alexander was fifty percent more likely to get an interview than a resume from a name like Latoya Washington.

This shouldn't surprise me — of course people like to hire people who are like them. And minorities are not running the show in corporate America. In fact, I am guilty, also. Even though I know that diversity enhances workplace success, I also know that managing someone like myself is a lot easier than managing someone who's not like me; it's so much easier to lead people who are already thinking in the same way that I am.

So I can talk until I'm blue in the face about diversity, but I have to admit that I have preconceptions about someone with the last name of Rodriguez and someone whose last name is Alexander. I don't want to have preconceptions, but we can't always control those things. So I thought of changing my son's last name, but then I thought, that's a cop out.

I want to believe that we can control how we approach resumes so that we mitigate our preconceptions by reading resumes without reading names. Each of us is more likely to interview more minorities if we do not read names. It's a simple process that will teach each of us something about our prejudices and ourselves.

While studies show that managing diversity improves one's career, people still resist hiring diverse teams. This means the issue of diversity is no longer convincing people it's good for the office, the issue is convincing individual people that they are part of the problem. And each of us is. So give name-blind resumes a try. See what happens. And who knows? Maybe one day, that resume you might have skipped will be my son's.

6 replies
  1. Charles Xavier
    Charles Xavier says:

    Love your column, Penelope.
    You cannot protect your child from everything. Your child’s name could be as non-Hispanic, non-Jewish and “all-American” as any, but then if it happens to rhyme with any curseword on the planet, it’s all for naught. Part of childhood is learning how to deal with other people’s unincited meanness toward you. In my childhood, kids were picked on for no other reason than their name. It made me mad, but it was also (eventually) clear to me that it had nothing to do with me, and more to do with the meanness of the person throwing the insults. Take it from a middle school teacher…your kid will have more insults to weather with the easily-tease-able name “Trunk” than “Rodriguez”.

    Regarding the racism issue, it will not disappear by “disappearing” minority cultures. Your son is part latino whether his name is Trunk or Rodriguez. Even if he gets that job in a company that wouldn’t have hired him with a latino surname, he’s still Jewtino. So now he’s in, but he’s surrounded by an office full prejudiced people. He has to deal with the prejudice ANYWAY.

    HR departments’ discrimination against minorities will only disappear if there are *more* minorities around, not fewer. What your son needs is to know that these invisible obstacles are out there, and how to get around them. Even if you and your husband were both privileged WASPy old-money types, you’d still have discrimination working against you for *that* in many circles. Everyone of every class and race has to deal with prejudice. This is not a color-blind society.

    There are myriad traits your child could inherit from his parents that could lead to an “imperfect” life. What if he inherits bad eyesight? baldness? a weak heart? freckles? You can’t control the world through your child. You can’t eliminate racism or nearsightedness or Rogaine or nasty children’s rhymes thrown at freckled children. You must give the child the tools: whether they be tangible (like glasses), or intangible (like self-confidence).

  2. Rufus
    Rufus says:

    I was picked on at school but…

    Children will pick on your name regardless of what it rhymes with or sounds like or means. They had real difficulty with mine as Rufus just doesn’t rhyme with anything bad. They made up a new bad name to rhyme with it. This convinced me that within the classroom at least your name is not nearly so important as whether you are going to get picked on for other reasons.

    Once we step out of the classroom this changes. After reading this article I though back through all the people I have hired and decided I am not in fact part of the problem. I have hired a very diverse bunch in my time. If anything I have hired more people from minorities and different ethnic backgrounds than the split in this country would expect. Many more.

    My guess as to why this has happened is that these people have not been picked off by other companies and so are available for less money than their abilities and qualifications warrant. This backs up the research that says that your name does matter in terms of getting a job.

    I agree that if we were all clearly minorities that could help make the world fairer. I also feel that the idea of people changing their names to make their children appear to belong to a new and wonderful minority is not something that is likely to happen on a large scale any time soon. On the other hand if a sufficient number of un-prejudiced people get in to the position of doing the hiring that could have the same effect.

    Let your son choose his own path but mention the option of changing his name temporarily during his job search. Yes he may end up in a job with prejudiced people but that is the bit your husband seems to be saying is fine. Not being in a job because of those same people is not fine. And if he gets the job he can make sure to hire the minority workers that I have found to be such good value. This will increase his value to the company and the company's value to the world whilst at the same time supporting diversity.

    Then again he could just decide he hates all the prejudiced privileged people and try dropping out instead. I cannot bring my self to do that as I do not seem very good at hating anyone, but the option is always there…

  3. Trina Roach
    Trina Roach says:

    Sheesh, I know I am (really) late to this party, but I stumbled over the following passage SO HARD that I couldn’t help but respond:

    “…Even though I know that diversity enhances workplace success, I also know that managing someone like myself is a lot easier than managing someone who's not like me; it's so much easier to lead people who are already thinking in the same way that I am…”

    One of the main motors behind the perpetuation of discrimination is the lapse in basic logic that this statement wholeheartedly embraces. Namely the false assumption that someone who

    – has a different skin color
    – practices a different religion
    – has a different sexual orientation
    – etc.

    can’t possibly “tick” like you.

    How do you KNOW how Latoya Jackson ticks unless you take the time to get to know her – at least in an interview? You can’t! Just as you can’t automatically assume that Beth Nilsson or Seth Collins think like you do just because – when perusing their resumes – you envisage them as being somehow blond and blue-eyed.

    I’m sure you love your sons – dearly, but you are really doing them a major disservice if you are:

    1.) raising them to think they are the exception to the rule for “other people’s” biases (they’re “your” son’s, so – Rodriguez or not – they don’t deserve to be the brunt of all that nasty discrimination, right?) while simultaneously

    2.) passing on a subtly discriminatory attitude that teaches that essential similarity in thinking (among other things) is somehow “color-coded” for easy recognition.


  4. Mickey Greaves
    Mickey Greaves says:

    We had a wrestling match in my house since I favored my Jewish grandfather’s first name. My sister, also pregnant, took my suggestion on the Jewish man’s last name, using it for her son’s first name but my husband, a gentile, was adamantly against our son being named “Aaron.” He gave me no reason so I joked about it, “What, in 3rd grade, you were bullied by a kid named, ‘Aaron?'” (No Aarons in my family — and there were 4 — ever beat up a guy like my husband, I can assure you. My folks are runners.) Perhaps, like you with the name Rodriguez, he can’t pronounce “Aaron,” either? On the other hand, I decided to give up my maiden name, still a common name here to have to pronounce, re-pronounce and spell, and respell my husband’s surname, once a common name. But that won’t be the final word, gang. Now 11 years old, our kid plays ball like Hank. And that would be “Mr. Aaron” to you.

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