Race Out Loud: The name game

Can you tell someone’s race by his or her first name?

August 28, 2012

Afi-Odelia Scruggs

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It’s been almost a decade since economists showed that resumes with names like Greg and Emily generated more job interviews than resumes from Lakisha and Jamal. And since then there’s been the trend of people “whitening” their resumes by using initials instead of a full name.

So the name game matters. But how accurate are the perceptions?

Chicago folksinger Ginni Clemmens and her kids embraced all kinds of names when they recorded the children’s song “K-Katy children’s song in 1977.”

But Azia Hawthorne knows that some names get more love than others. She strongly suspects her name got her resume tossed. She won’t identify the company, but the experience still stings.

HAWTHORNE: I actually knew someone who worked there, and they found out behind the scenes for me and they discretely told me. I felt horrible; I felt extremely insulted. For them to make the assumption that Azia Hawthorne was this “black girl.”  I just didn’t appreciate it.

All summer, WBEZ and vocalo will be talking about race—out loud, and on the air, in frank conversations and stories, and in lively public events. We’re asking what it would sound like if people said what they really think and feel about race and ethnicity. What if they really talked about how it shapes them, their lives, and attitudes?  What would we hear?

But how did the recruiters know that Azia was black? Does a first name really tell a person’s race? 

AYALA: I kind of want to say yeah, but sometimes no. Maybe certain occasions, yeah.

STIRLING: The names that come naturally from the country, like Jose. That’s more Hispanic.  But I don’t actually know where to draw that line.

Vincent Ayala and Holly Stirling were two people who agreed to play the “Name Game.” I found them when I spent a couple of hot sticky days prowling Chicago’s Millennium Park.  I also met this guy:

YOUNG:  Anthony Young, A-N-T-H-O-N-Y, Y-O-U-N-G.

The rules were simple. I would say popular baby names, and they would guess the race. I got the names from babycenter.com, the Social Security Administration, and the New York Times. New York is one of the few states that classifies baby names by race.

What is Jacob? 

AYALA: Jacob is Caucasian

HAWTHORNE: Jacob is white

YOUNG:  Jacob is a uh, Caucasian American

They’re right. Jacob has been a popular name for white babies.

What about Jeremiah?

YOUNG: “Uh, I would say, that’s probably a white American, I would say.

AYALA: Possibly either African American or Caucasian

HAWTHORNE: Whoo, Jeremiah is white

Nope. Jeremiah is African American.

What about Jayden?

AYALA: Um, I’ve seen that on a number of babies. It would kind of be hard to tell honestly. Maybe Hispanic??

YOUNG: I would probably associate that with an African American.

They’re both right. Social Security Administration said Jaden was the fourth most popular male baby name in 2011.

I’m gonna switch to some girls now: Neveah?

ANTHONY: Say that again?

Nevaeh  N-E-V-A-E-H, Nevaeh.

YOUNG: I haven’t heard that name before. So I’m gon’ say it’s associated with an African American.

Nevaeh is heaven spelled backwards. In 2011, it was the 35th most popular name for baby girls.

What about Chloe?

HAWTHORNE: Chloe is white.

AYALA: Chloe would, be Chloe is Caucasian.

YOUNG: That’s definitely a white American name.

Actually, Chloe was a favorite for Asians and African Americans.

To a certain extent, we all play the name game. Everyone stereotypes. But danger comes when folks get penalized because they’re different. Or assumed to be different.

Really, though, the name game is futile. Remember, Nevaeh, Heaven spelled backwards?  Sonny Sandoval, a Christian rocker, brought it into the mainstream when he gave it to his daughter. He’s Mexican, Italian, Chamorro and Hawaiian, not black.  As the nation gets more diverse, the names will cross over, just like music, words and food.  Who knows what names we’ll all adore?

Clemmens: “V-V-V-Vita, beautiful Vita. You’re the only on-on-one that I adore.”

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Thanks to the Smithsonian Folkways Records for the use of Ginni Clemmens’  song “K- Katy.”