Can a 'Black' Name Affect Job Prospects?

It's the first major decision new parents face, and their choice will stick with their child for a lifetime: what to name the baby. And today simple is out and variety is in, especially for many black Americans.

Many African-American parents say they're returning to their roots by choosing names that sound uniquely black.

For some a unique name has been an asset. For stars like Oprah Winfrey or Shaquille O'Neal or Denzel Washington, a distinctive first name can become a unique, identifiable brand, almost a trademark.

But some ordinary folks say being different is just too difficult.

Tiqua Gator says people just can't seem to get her name right. But she says her real burden runs even deeper. She's concerned about getting a better job, and sees her name as a potential handicap.

"Something that was supposed to separate you from everyone else is now at the same time hindering you," she said.

Gator has come to believe she'd have an easier time lining up a job in her chosen field of marketing if she had a plain name like Jane.

"I think that they feel that they can identify better with a Pam or Amber rather than a Tiqua," she said.

The Résumé Test

And Gator may be on to something. A recent University of Chicago study, "Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?" by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, found that people with names like Pam or Amber got 50 percent more callbacks for job interviews than applicants with similar résumés and names like Lakisha and Shaniqua. (To read the full study, click here.)

Even though the study looked at 5,000 résumés, a group of young professionals didn't quite believe the name on top of their résumés could make that big a difference. The skeptics included Carita, an attorney; Tavoria, a law student; Orpheus, an educator; Arsenetta, a statistician; Tremelle, a financial adviser; and Ebony, an M.B.A. student.

So 20/20 asked the six to participate in an experiment.

20/20 put 22 pairs of names to the test — the six skeptics included.

Each person posted two résumés on popular job-search Web sites — one under his or her real name, and the same identical résumé under a made-up, "white-sounding" names like Peter, Melissa and Kathleen.

You'd think the identical résumés would get the same attention. Instead, the résumés with the white-sounding names on them were actually downloaded 17 percent more often by job recruiters looking for candidates.

"You really never know why you don't get called back for that interview. I thought it was because of my job skills, or my résumé wasn't appropriate, but I never thought it was because of my name," Carita said.

She was shocked by the calls from potential employers — not to her, but to her fictitious white counterpart. "I was just blown away that Kathleen got phone calls for three of the four weeks of the study, and I didn't get any. And Kathleen does not exist," she said.

Arsenetta also was envious of her fictitious white alter ego, Kimberly.

"They were calling her morning, noon and night," she said. "I was standing there looking at my phone going, 'God, I want to answer that phone call and tell the man I'm interested in this job!' "

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