The first time I had my own company, we ignored Martin Luther King Day. And it felt really bad, like I was not living my own values. Now I am careful each year to do something to mark the holiday. So today I’m posting a piece I wrote a few years ago, before I had a blog…

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, even though I can’t roll the Rs, which drives my husband crazy.

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 worked with a think tank that researched solutions to homelessness. Sometimes when he met with leaders of homeless shelters, the leaders mistook my husband for one of the homeless. This never happened 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 the Ivy League 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 study conducted at 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 race and discrimination, 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 fairly if we do not read names. It’s a simple process that will teach each of us something about our prejudices and ourselves.

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.

18 replies
  1. Mauri
    Mauri says:

    Good Post Penelope and thank you for speaking how you truly reacted to a situation.

    I have found myself in situations like the one you wrote about. While working for a software company, I recieved a resume from HR for a man with an Asian name. I was thinking that I probably would not understand him. I hired him because I was so ashamed about the stereotype I gave him. It turns out, his accent was thick, but he was a great and hard working employee.

    I wish the hiring process was different. I find that I can make a true judgement on a person after one week of working with him/her and not through a resume read through and a half hour interview.

  2. Eric
    Eric says:

    In Singapore, where we have a diversified culture, a mix of Chinese, Indians, Malays etc, the government has implemented measures to ensure racial diversity in housing districts. For example, in public housing, there is a quota set for different ethnic groups and once the quota is taken up, no more is allocated for that particular block.However, the hiring process is not so, managers are free to hire whomever they think is suitable for a particular position.

    I do find it strange though that in my company, we are all of the same race (Chinese), is that considered racial discrimination or did it just happened that way. My company is not very transparent with its hiring policy, we do not even have a HR department, my CEO does most of the hiring and firing, oh… he does the payroll as well… talk about keeping costs down.

    * * * * * *

    Eric, Thank you for your comment. This is a great example of how diversity works. Your experience is different than the other commenters so you bring a different perspective. And, at least for me, your perspective makes me look at my own a little differently.

    Penelope

  3. Sharon Sarmiento
    Sharon Sarmiento says:

    Penelope–what an insightful post. I can relate to your husband’s easy-going attitude about the obvious ethnicity of his last name. If you have a non-caucasian sounding last name, you just sort of get used to it and it becomes part of you.

    Only a few times in my life have I noticed someone treating me differently in a bad way because of my last name. Sometimes folks will assume I speak Spanish which I don’t (I wish I did!), and most of the time they’ll ask me where I’m from or the origin of my name, which is a nice ice-breaker. More annoyingly, every once in a while folks will ask what my nationality is–duh, I’m American! (I’m sure that when people ask me what my nationality is, they really mean to ask what is my heritage or my descent, so I cut them some slack and just tell them my dad was from the Philippines.)

    Maybe it’s just my optimistic take on life, but I have always thought my last name worked to my advantage–it’s colorful, exotic, a great conversation starter, and it sounds beautiful to me. It stands out from the run-of-the-mill Jones, Smiths, and Alexanders. With a non-ethnic sounding name, you are probably more able to blend into the crowd, but who really wants to do that?

    * * * * * *

    Sharon,

    So much of what you write echos stuff my husband has said to me. For example, it is true for him, too, that people cannot always identify his origin by looking at him. And when he says, “I’m American,” people often seem annoyed. I am fascinated to hear that someone else has such a similar experiences to his…

    Penelope

  4. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    1. The homeless people in the USA must be different from those in Toronto. Most of the homeless we see in the street are obviously mentally ill and look very dishevelled.

    So, unless your husband was a hippie and dressed down and never shaved or cut his hair, I have trouble believing that he was regularly taken to be someone who lived on the street.

    2. When I was in university we used to hear that business culture revolved around the “cash nexus” (Carlyle). That was the problem. But in the case of prejudice, it’s the solution.

    The recruiters I know only care about making placements. Your name, skin colour and religion are irrelevant.

    But, I’ll qualify that a bit. No one discriminates on the basis of accent but a high level of communication skills is always important. So a very strong accent or poor vocabulary is going to be a problem. And this would work against some new immigrants or people who don’t make a point, over time, of improving their communication skills.

    I told this to a friend who works in the government and he called me a racist which isn’t true.

    * * * * * * *

    Michael,

     Thanks for bringing the Canadian perspective, which I always find interesting. For what it’s worth, I receive a good bit of email from Canadians who tell me they have a hard time getting a job because of their accent.

    Penelope

  5. Emily
    Emily says:

    Penelope, thanks so much for this post. You’ve done a wonderful job of pointing to some of the unconscious attitudes that manifest in the workplace. None of us is born judging people of other ethnic groups (or our own for that matter!), but it is very, very easy to pick up the reactions we have from the society around us, and it happens to all of us, starting in early childhood. Talking about it honestly, and admitting these attitudes exist, is a great way to honor Martin Luther King’s birthday.

  6. August
    August says:

    It isn’t a big deal because having the name continue is so much more important than what some future HR person might or might not do.

    That’s why your husband says it isn’t a big deal.
    Compared to family, racism is a molehill.

  7. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    Penelope, re Canadians can’t find work because of their accents. Unless their accents are atrocious, I don’t believe that’s true.

    But, here’s a related problem. Very few immigrants speak English at home.

    My father is European but he married a Canadian so he had to speak English at home. As a result he has less of an accent than his relatives.

    I see this with some friends, as well. They never speak English at home and I’m sure that in some cases it (legitimately) hurts the job prospects of intelligent, industrious people.

  8. Dale Harris
    Dale Harris says:

    Penny,
    I believe I understand what your husband is saying. And it is basically, “Who has the energy to fight all of the time? We just need to let the kids toughen up; learn to roll with the punches, and be able to handle the situations when they arise.” The mindset of someone who has lived with a situation all his life and has struggled/thrived in spite of it.
    Dale Harris is a very ordinary name. But I have found in recent interviews that alot of the time, when a large black man walks into the interview room, the eyes of the interviewer become downcast (or glazed over) for a fleeting moment, and although there is extremely polite conversation, and little in the way of direct challenges to my ability to accomplish the tasks at hand, the die is cast so to speak.
    As an old hand at the game, I find that when I can make the interviewer comfortable with me on a human level, I have a better success rate at receiving second meetings. But all in all, life is what it is and we just need to deal with it or live in a constant state of anger.
    Not a very novel concept since you women have been doing it for years.

    * * * * * *

    Dale, This is such a revealing, profound, and useful comment. Thank you for showing us this issue up close.

    Penelope

     

  9. Dylan Tweney
    Dylan Tweney says:

    Penelope, what a radical idea — name-blind resumes! I think it would make an enormous difference in most companies’ hiring practices.

    This reminds me of a trend I know about through my friends who are musicians. In classical music, orchestras used to be dominated by men — like, 90% men and 10% or less women. Yet getting a job with an orchestra is a matter of pure talent, since nothing matters more than the audition, right? It must have been that women just weren’t talented enough to pass auditions, people used to think. Then orchestras started conducting auditions with the player behind a screen, so the director (and whoever else makes hiring decisions) could hear them play but not see the person playing. Within a few years, orchestras had quickly become closer to 50-50 M/F. Amazing what a little difference like that makes, even when people swear up and down (and even believe ourselves) that we are color- and race-blind.

    * * * * *

    Ooooh, I loved this one, Dylan. Thanks. I dug up the Princeton University report on having blind orchestra auditions. Here it is for anyone who is interested:

    http://www.princeton.edu/pr/pwb/01/0212/7b.shtml

    -Penelope

  10. jennifer winter
    jennifer winter says:

    These are excellent points. It makes me wonder as we have friends who are thinking of naming their son Dante (as his first name) We aren’t sure that we like it and not sure what to tell them when they ask.

  11. Jon
    Jon says:

    Penelope,
    I will add my experience to the mix also. A former co-worker of mine is from Vietnam and he used to own a painting company. He advertised in the phone book as “T****’s painting” and he received no calls. He decided to change the name of his company to “Steve’s painting” and the calls came pouring in. There never was a Steve associated with the company.

  12. Lena West
    Lena West says:

    I think it’s amazing that people are so shocked to hear that racism still exists. The ones who are shocked probably don’t have as many “Black friends” as they claim – for surely, you would ask a TRUE friend about their experiences in today’s world, no? I find it hard to believe it never gets talked about…indeed if there is a friendship in a true sense of the word.

    I believe that if anyone sees/refers to ANY other person – spouse or not – as a “minority”, it’s a disgrace.

    People should really look up the word “minority” to see its other meanings and racially hostile connotations.

    As a person of color, being called or referred to as a minority, insults me and I usually tend to think the person using the terminology is not well-informed.

    And for those that still think the word “minority” refers to census metrics, do you know what the U.S. government calls States in which people of color comprise the majority of the population? Majority-minority states.

    So, if people of color were minorities supposedly because, at one point, we made up the minority of the population, when we make up the MAJORITY of the population, why are people of color still referred to as minorities? Care to guess? Think about it. It’s the subliminal stuff that gets ya.

    Look beyond *your* experience,

    Lena
    * * * * * * *

    Hi, Lena.

    Thank you for your taking the time to post this. I am always very happy to have opinionated comments on the blog. I actually have very limited experience with what you’re talking about, so I’m happy to learn from you.

    I wonder, though, what is the language you would want people to use, instead of minority?

    When I was writing a piece about race for the LA Weekly, I wrote a lot about Latinos, and they are no longer a minoirty group in LA, so the LA Weekly instructed me to use the term “non-White”. I have a feeling this would not be acceptable to you. But I tell you to let you know that I really have no idea what language to use instead.

    I am surprised you would use the term “person of color.” I don’t understand why that’s better.

    I can’t help but wonder which is more important — to make sure people use conscious language when talking about race, or to make sure that people talk without fear of being jumped on. Or maybe something in between. To be honest, I get very nervous writing on this blog about race because I fear that I am not up to snuff on all deconstructions of racist language. But if I don’t write about race on the blog, that seems bad, too.  

    Penelope

  13. Lena West
    Lena West says:

    Penelope:

    Thanks for the response.

    Many people are suprised that I prefer the term “person of color” because of its seeming similarity to the old term “colored”. While I can’t speak for all people of color, I can say that non-white is fine with most people I know, as well.

    I am also Latina. You’ll encounter many people who would rather you refer to them as Hispanics.

    My point was – almost anything (within reason) is better than minority. That is a sinister word that carries undercurrent connotations.

    If you aren’t sure which term to use you can 1) ask friends or 2) use whatever term you think is best – someone will let you know if it’s passe.

    I agree that there has to be a dialogue about race. So, while you might not get fabulous reactions when you write about race on the blog, the fact is at least you have the courage to engage in earnest dialogue – which, I can tell you is few and far between. People of all shades like to dance around the topic of race but when it gets to the meat of the issue, most turn tail and run.

    To the extent that you are comfortable with it, keep talking about it and keep being willing to “go there” – again to the degree that it resonates with you.

    Here is an interesting story on NPR about the issue: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5539692 Jensen, like you, “goes there”, in a way that I find revealing, honest and raw. I can *always* appreciate revealing, honest and raw.

    -Lena

  14. Brian
    Brian says:

    So why do you have to say that silly rolling R sound in the first place. It’s an R, not a D. If he wants it that way, spell it D-d-d-d-dod-d-d-d-d-egez.

    I’m sick of this hispanic arrogance. When someone corrects me for not saying their name with a perfect Spanish accent, I tell them I will when they say mine with a perfect Irish one.

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