Kylie’s (a.k.a. Keisha’s) story reminded me of an article I read entitled, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” In short, the answer is yes. The article is based on a study about the call back rates from job applicants and cites how many people can’t get a job interview because the name topping their resumes immediately disqualifies them. Even in a time when the U.S. population is shifting and becoming increasingly diversified, discrimination still rears its ugly head.
Parents choose names with racial and cultural significance, while never deliberately intending to handicap their children. I gave all of my children Persian first names with traditional American middle names that had a familial connection. I won’t share their names to protect their privacy, but each name was spelled simply and passed the Americanized pronunciation test. Or so I thought until people automatically converted the “s” in my son’s name to “z.” I’ve noticed how many American-born people choke up when trying to pronounce an unfamiliar name. Accompany me to a waiting room at the doctor’s office and you’ll see the nurse hesitating as she prepares to read out the name on the file. Doesn’t anyone recall learning elementary phonics?
There have been times where my children have wished for different names. Children have made fun of Peter’s name and that’s hard because he has enough challenges trying to succeed with autism. (Side note: Remember that Peter isn’t his real name.) At times, my carbon copy daughter has threatened to change her name when she’s older and my oldest son often goes by a nickname using the “z” that others have infused into his name. And not until my other daughter was in preschool Spanish did I discover that her name is also the Spanish word for a croaking amphibian. I never did like Spanish.
People become their names in the sense that once we know someone with a certain name then we often carry those perceptions onto others. My son had an assignment to write a journal entry to an African woman circa the late 1700s. He chose to name the fictitious woman “Yolanda.” To him that represented an African woman. To me, Yolanda is blonde, originally from Holland, but now resides in La-La Land as a cast member on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. And when I received a fraudulent solicitation call from a "Mike Johnson" in India, I knew that wasn't the man's birth name.
So back to my original question about whether names invoke preconceived stereotypes, I think it’s only natural that they do. What we do with those thoughts only becomes problematic if we judge someone based solely on a name. Ever noticed how people used President Obama’s middle name Hussein strategically when questioning his background? Maybe you’ve judged someone based on a name and never thought twice about it. Being conscious of our actions is the only way to change our thought pattern. So the next time you encounter someone who may have a name you don’t recognize or be from another country, remember what my Iranian-born husband always says: “I may speak with an accent, but I don’t think with one.” Carry on.