Aug. 20, 2004 — -- 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!' "
Ebony felt frustrated that companies were quick to stereotype her by name. "Once they get to know me, they say, 'Oh, you know, she is Ebony but she's not that militant one or she's not that rowdy little girl or she's not the ignorant one. She's very smart and very capable of doing this job,' " she said.
What kind of companies were responsible? Our independent research found biased responses from employment agencies, law firms and even large financial corporations.
Recruiter: ‘There Is Rampant Racism’
But capable doesn't always matter. A job recruiter for Fortune 500 companies in northern California revealed an ugly secret.
"There is rampant racism everywhere. And people who deny that are being naïve," said the recruiter, who spoke on the condition her name would not be used.
The recruiter said if she were given two résumés, all else being equal, except one says Shaniqua, and the other says Jennifer, she would call Jennifer first.
It's a choice she says she was trained to make: When representing certain companies, do not send black candidates. And on a résumé, a name may be the only cue of the applicant's race.
"I think that the way that I had been taught and what has helped me to succeed in the industry is unfair," she said.
It's also racist, and, quite possibly, illegal.
That's why author Shelby Steele feels African-Americans must think long and hard before giving their children unusual or "black-sounding" names.
"It's a naïveté on the part of black parents," Steele said, "to name their children names that are so conspicuously different than American mainstream names. … It suggests to people outside that community who hear those names a certain alienation. Certain hostility."
Steele, a researcher specializing in race relations and author of A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America, is essentially telling black folks, don't name your child Deshawn or Loquesha.
"Yes. … I'm saying don't name your son Latrelle. Don't do that. … He's going to live 50, 60 years in the future. Give him a break. You know, call him Edward."
Challenge the Bias, Not the Names
But sociologist Bertice Berry says there are prominent African-Americans who've overcome the stigma of a black-sounding name, including top presidential adviser Condoleezza Rice.
"We've learned to say Condoleezza. And you just can't get more ghetto than Condoleezza," Berry said.
Opera diva Leontine Pryce also overcame any stigma attached to her name.
"We hear Leontine and you think opera," Berry said, "… When they're associated with power and wealth we learn them." Berry says what needs to change is society, not black names.
But the bias against those names, it seems, starts very early. University of Pittsburgh Vice Provost Jack Daniel studied 4- and 5-year-old children and found racist perceptions were deeply ingrained at an early age.
White children had a tendency to associate negative traits with black names, according to Daniel. "Your name can hurt you," Daniel said, "but you've got to change the people who hurt you because of your name.'
So, Daniel and his wife, Jeri, rejected white-sounding names for their own children. They chose African names — Omari and Marijata. "We thought that it was really important that the assimilation process not dissolve who we were as a people," Jeri Daniel said.
The Daniels' children carried on the tradition, naming their children Amani, Akili, Deven and Javon. They see the names as a source of pride.
But some of today's black-sounding names are more about conspicuous consumption than tradition. There is a trend to name children after luxury goods, like Moet, Lexus, even Toyota.
Steele said that trend "suggests real cultural deprivation. And it's heartbreaking to hear it."
Berry feels that "There's a responsibility, when anybody names a child, to name them something that means something." But she added, "I don't think we need to tell people, 'Don't name them that, because I don't like the way it sounds.' "
Unhappy with her own name and her experience in the job market, Tiqua Gator named her son Derek to help him get by in white America. "If I was to have any more children, it wouldn't be any Tiquas or it wouldn't be any Tamikas or Aishas. It would be something common," she said. "I wouldn't want my child to go through the same thing that I've went through."