What’s in a name?
As parents to-be, 22 years ago, my husband and I spent countless hours discussing possibilities for a “perfect” name for our daughter. Rather than turning to names from our respective family trees, we agreed to select a unique name that would reflect both of our cultural heritages: African-American and Mexican-American.
We selected a name that flowed beautifully in Spanish and English. Throughout our daughter’s life, teachers, parents and friends have complimented our choice.
To protect our daughter’s privacy, I’ll call her Celestina — a variation of her name that gives you its feeling. She graduated last summer with a STEM degree. Given our nation’s and Minnesota’s unmet need for STEM graduates, we envisioned a smooth transition into the workforce.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. And the name we proudly selected 22 years ago now seemed like a liability.
Our daughter spent four months applying for over 100 jobs with no follow-ups, with the exception of one interview that was arranged through a family friend. We watched her self-esteem plummet. Ordinarily energetic, positive and confident, she began doubting her self-worth, intellect and place in society. My husband and I also felt disheartened but remained constant with our words of encouragement.
Having delivered dozens of presentations and trainings on implicit bias, I began to wonder if my daughter’s name hindered her job search. During one of our despondent moments, I suggested an experiment based on research that found that applicants with “white-sounding” names were 50 percent more likely to be called for an interview than applicants with “African-American-sounding” names.
Although my daughter had never adopted a nickname, she agreed to the experiment because it offered a glimmer of hope. She reformatted her résumé with her new nickname, “Kristin.” Within a day of submitting a job application, Kristin had her first interview. Within 36 hours, Kristin was contacted for interviews on all three applications she’d submitted. Despite having the same credentials, Kristin was batting 1.000, while Celestina continued at .000. After interviewing for the three positions, Kristin was a finalist for all three. She accepted one of the job offers and is now thriving at her place of employment.
While living through this experience, we learned from friends that their college-educated children, nieces and nephews experienced similar difficulties.
One friend shared Ebony’s experience. Like our daughter, Ebony spent months struggling to find a job. Feeling helpless and discouraged, she reached out to her college career counselor who informed Ebony that her name was to blame. The career counselor advised Ebony to change her name on her résumé, which quickly led to employment.
Sadly, the more I’ve shared my daughter’s story, the more I’ve learned about its prevalence from dozens of African-American colleagues.
As Minnesotans, we are often puzzled about the disparities showing the unemployment rate for African-Americans in our state is three to four times the unemployment rate for Caucasians. Admittedly, there are many contributing factors. But a job candidate’s name should not present a barrier to recruiting a talented workforce.
Eliminating this systemic barrier is within our grasp; it requires a commitment from the top as well as training for human resources professionals on implicit bias.
These are simple measures that can yield immediate benefits to our community. As Minnesotans, we know that we can and must make this commitment together. Minnesota is better than this.
Luz María Frías lives in Roseville.