Black, or ethnic sounding, names spark controversy, discussion, again

The names black parents give their children, especially if it is ethnic, has caused much buzz and chatter in online circles recently Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, September 24, 2013 - The link between African and African American names has once again ignited contentious debate.  In the past week, several news stories have led to renewed discussion over whether certain Black ethnic names relay negative consequences on those with those names.

A lot of online conversations centered around four news stories, in particular:

1. “Why Do Black Parents Give their Kids Stupid Made Up Names?” Daily Beast contributor Jamelle Bouie challenged a popular thread on the social site Reddit where one user questioned Black parents’ decisions to give their children “ethnic” sounding “black” names. Bouie challenged participants to the thread and suggested it may be easier to pick on names from those who are at the bottom of our socioeconomic “caste” system. In the piece, Bouie noted that names like those Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus,  US Senator for Georgia Saxby Chambliss  and former Massachusetts Governor Willard Mitt and his son Tag have are unusual. 

So too are white children named Braelyn or Decyln yet no one questions the intelligence of their parents for selecting their names.  For example, Sarah Palin has two children named Track and Trig and a grandson named Tripp, all not common names either.

2. The Derrico Quints – Around the same time, black names became core to conversations after news surfaced of a Las Vegas family that welcomed quintuplets on September 6 without using fertility treatment.

After news outlets shared the names parents Evonne and Dion Derrico had given their children: Deniko, Dariz, Deonee, Daican and Daitian, many respondents to articles on sites like Yahoo! reacted negatively.

Some questioned why educated black parents  would give their children obviously “ghetto” sounding names in 2013 when there is ample evidence that such names could impact their ability to make it through a hiring managers screening process

3. The curious case of the mysterious Hiring Manager “Andrew Moskowitz”  And then last Thursday, the New York Times  posted on its Facebook page of 3.5 million followers  a quote from columnist Nikisia Drayton’s NY Times blog  article.  In the piece, Drayton grappled with whether to give her soon-to-be born son a traditional black name or not.  In the quote posted on the Facebook Page, Drayton wrote she worried that her unborn son’s race and name alone would leave him marked as a criminal for life.

And that fear rang true in comment responses to the quote and article.  One respondent, Andrew Moskowitz shared that he is a hiring manager who routinely passes on “African sounding” names like “Tamisha” and other “tribal names” so not to give his existing employers “discomfort” in having to “deal with someone with such a name.”  

Before long, bloggers and other social media hawks had searched Moskowitz’ various online accounts and presence and discovered other questionably racist and homophobic comments.  Some vowed to get him fired.  He hid his friends list, deleted the comment and attempted to scrub similar comments online.

Eventually, one enterprising online personality found his employer and posted its contact online. The owner of the mill company where Moskowitz supposedly worked at got several calls and irate messages and later insisted that despite a phone messaging service operator saying “he was out of the office,” Moskowitz may not work there after all.

In fact, his entire Facebook page may have been created with made up facts for the simple purpose of trolling  and leaving negative comments on the Internet.  Moskowitz appears to really be a self-employed sales man actually.

Facebook

Nevertheless, his comments have truth to them.

In several commentaries in various social media forums yesterday quite a few hiring managers backed up Moskowitz’s comment.

One black female respondent who works in human resources wrote:

“I have had to address this issue in my workshops. Unfortunately, what he said is true. Hiring managers will sometimes skip over resumes if they cannot pronounce the name. Is it right? Absolutely not!!! Does it happen? Absolutely!!! What can be done about it? Choose a “nickname” that’s easier to pronounce. A resume is not an official legal document. People get embarrassed when they stumble over a name, so to avoid the embarrassment, they just won’t call.”

That Moskowitz mentioned, perhaps awkwardly, the word “tribal”, also triggered panic in people here in the United States who have African names that originate in Africa.  

One person, who is in the job market, decided  that maybe he should replace his first name  when applying for jobs to an English one to make sure he isn’t screened out by hiring managers.

Another commenter to the Moskowitz discussion had a different take.

He noted that it’s wrong to discriminate against Africans who have names that “mean something” or are ancestral but he lacked sympathy for the “made up” names from poor black parents who have never been out of the United States yet come up with a “wild name”.

Perhaps,  he is talking about the Derricos.

“Ask some teachers out there about the names they have to deal with,” the Facebook user said. “That’s what I believe he’s talking about.”

But like as Bouie pointed out in his Daily Beast piece, Whites also give their children made up names or unique ones yet aren’t judged the same.

A Facebook poster named Dineen Pashoukos Wasylik chimed in the conversation, adding, “People mispronounce my names all the time. It doesn’t make for an ‘awkward and tense workplace’. Oh wait- -I am white.”

Indeed, many people also got irate when red carpet reporters had challenges pronouncing 2013 Academy Award nominee  9-year old Quezenzhane Wallis’ name and  at least one asked to shorten her name to “Annie” rather than figure it out. 

4. Black Names = Potential Criminal

While you had one African man with a Nigerian name busy changing his Nigerian name to “Bob” on his resume, a fellow Nigerian - blogger, writer, humorist and digital strategist- Luuvie Ajayi was creating controversy of her own on her very popular Facebook page of over 16,000 fans.

Yesterday evening, she posted a screencapture image of a local news broadcast with mugvshots of black youth who had been arrested for a murder: Treveonta Clark, Adrianandious Blackeyes and Tyrieukus Edwards. 

“Their parents didn’t want these boys to have nice things w/these names,” the woman who ironically also has a unique yet traditional name captioned the post. 

She then linked to her 2011 post advising parents to stop naming their kids “stupidly.”

Facebook

As expected, that posting got re-shared over 300 times.  It received over 600 likes and fueled heated discussion in the comment section with those having strong opinions across the spectrum.

Irrespective of the defense of names, few can doubt that they have negative consequences even in the digital world.

In Drayton’s article, she reminded readers  of a recent online experiment Harvard University Professor Latanya Sweeney conducted.

When investigating whether race shaped online ad delivery, Sweeney discovered that a Google search for her own name pulled a link to a site where users can search her arrest record, premised on the assumption that irrespective of whether she had one or not, a person of that name may have a criminal record.

Thus, even bits and bytes are applying certain names with negative markers.

All of this discussion is cyclical and continues to make rounds back into conversations, periodically.

In a 2009 report, CBS news wrote:

“Minorities of all kinds have wrestled with whether to celebrate their culture by giving their children distinctive names, or help them ‘blend in’ with a name that won’t stick out. Thousands of Jews have changed their names, hoping to improve their economic prospects in the face of discrimination, as have Asians and other minorities.”

It cited a National Bureau of Economic Research and University of Chicago paper released that year which suggested that black names are associated with lower socioeconomic status, although the author to the report, Roland Fryer, stated he didn’t think the names were burdensome.

Fryer suggested for blacks to improve economically, they don’t need to change their names or  culture, but should push for greater integration in society.

A separate study that same year had alternate conclusions.  In a paper titled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?” the authors found that a  black-sounding name can be an impediment.

The authors took the content of 500 real resumes off online job boards and then replaced the names with made-up names picked to “sound white” or “sound black” and responded to 1,300 job ads in The Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune. White names got about one callback per 10 resumes; black names got one per 15. Carries and Kristens had call-back rates of more than 13 percent, but Aisha, Keisha and Tamika got 2.2 percent, 3.8 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively.

So whether in employment or other social and societal settings, names continue to be an issue for concern.

BONUS: I’ll add my personal experience:

While engaging in an online discussion on Twitter, one person butted in to point out my name  to suggest inferior intelligence. He assumed my name was a made up one because perhaps he had not ever heard of  or met a “Jeneba” before.

It is not.

In fact, I am named for my grandmother who was named for the daughter of the prophet Mohammed.  My name is a derivative of Zainab because there is no J in the Arabic alphabet. There are thousands of us in Sierra Leone and hundreds in the United States and other nations. And US Olympic runner Jeneba Tarmoh has made the name more well known now.

But what the exchange illuminates is how the distinction as to who deserves a name or even if the name is authentic or not leaves lots of room for blatant and ignorant assumptions and discrimination. 

For example, Chantal is considered a “black American” name until you go to France and realize it is common name there and has origins there.

A hiring manager cannot know if the Chantal is White or Black. 

The moment, he starts searching the rest of the resume for clues, if he gets past the name, to see if she belonged to the Black Student Union or a black Greek organization, he then goes beyond discriminating purely on name alone but on race too. 

It’s all a smokescreen to disguise racial discrimination.

Parents shouldn’t have to but in 2013 still do have to factor in name as many Black Americans have gone out of their way to pick a name just so to avoid discrimination.  

Meanwhile, others remain steadfast to reject the stigma of black sounding names or names that reveal their race. They say they will celebrate their African heritage or their right to give their child whatever name they please.

It’s an issue that parents of other races don’t necessarily have to deal with.

But as Researcher Roland Fryer notes, a name shouldn’t be something to hamper a person. 

Ask Barack Obama, Beyonce Knowles and Oprah Winfrey if their names have stopped them from achieving their dreams.


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Jeneba Ghatt
Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt is a former journalist turned lawyer turned citizen journalist. Currently, she manages her boutique communications law firm, where she has represented small businesses and nationally-recognized civil and consumer rights organizations before the United States Supreme Court, federal courts and the FCC. She also covers the White House and US Congress for the online news site Politic365.com while authoring her own influential blog JenebaSpeaks.com which is frequently accessed by top policy makers and think tanks, and the investment community. JenebaSpeaks.com focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and reports on policies and rules in the communications and tech sector.
 
Before opening her law firm, The Ghatt Law Group, which was the first communications firm owned by women and minorities, Jeneba regulated Comcast and Starpower as the Assistant General Counsel for the District of Columbia's Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications, and at one point was the only communications regulatory attorney in the entire city. She is founding member and policy chair for a new trade association, the National Association of Multicultural Digital Entrepreneurs and provides advice and counsel to new businesses in the tech industry, particularly small businesses owned by women and minorities.

Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, but raised in the United States by her Catholic mom and Muslim dad, she started her college career creating web content for one of the earliest websites in history while working part time for the University of Maryland's Office of Technology. Following her graduation from the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, she founded and co-wrote one of the earliest blogs and since then has gone on to found and author six different widely read and influential blogs. She was one of only 22 writers and bloggers to attend the first White House summit for African American media.
 
She holds a Certificate in Communications Law Studies from Catholic; a Juris Doctor from there as well, and a Master of Law in advocacy degree from the Georgetown University Law Center where she first taught and lectured as a Staff Attorney and Graduate fellow at that law school's Institute for Public Representation. She later went on to teach Media Law at the University of Maryland at College Park and guest lecture at Yale Law School and Penn State University, College of Telecommunications. She is well skilled and versed with social media and manages several Twitter, Facebook, Linked In accounts and groups.
 
She sits on the board of several non profits and trade associations.

Contact Jeneba Ghatt

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