My Uncommon Name Has Impacted My Entire Life

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
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“Sa’iyda? Where are you from?”

“New York.”

“Where is your name from?”

“It’s Arabic; my dad is Muslim.”

“Oh, how… different!”

I have had variations of this conversation so many times in my life that I have lost count. After I explain that my name is Arabic, I get a knowing nod, as if the person just knew that there had to be some sort of deeper meaning there. The fact that “where are you from” is a common response is also telling; clearly you can’t have a non-Anglicized name and be from the U.S.

News flash: I’ve never been out of the country, despite my “ethnic” name.

When people find out that my father, who was born in Brooklyn, converted to Islam about twenty years before my birth, a lightbulb suddenly goes off. It couldn’t be that maybe my parents just heard the name and liked it? Nope, apparently not. Growing up with a “unique” name can difficult, but the difficulties are far more complex for people of color.

In season three of ABC’s black-ish, there is an entire episode devoted to the challenge of black parents giving their child a “black-sounding” name. Dre is determined to name their newest son DeVante, and no one thinks it’s a good idea. With children named Zoey, Junior (Andre Jr.), Jack and Diane, where the hell does DeVante fit in?

Bow, who is used to going through life with an unconventional name is hesitant for a myriad of reasons, one being that people are not going to want to hire a man named DeVante. This is confirmed when Dre’s co-worker and friend Charlie says that if he was on an airplane and the pilot was named DeVante Johnson, he’d get off the plane.

Ouch. But also, not an uncommon response to names that sound ethnic. In the end, they compromise on the name DeVante Matthew Johnson, so he has a more “socially acceptable” name to fall back on.

So, why is DeVante viewed negatively, and yet a name like Amerson is (typically) not? Simple; it comes down to culture. Amerson, or names in the same vein, like Brinlee or Ryken are instantly just accepted as unique, unassuming and trendy. But a name like DeVante, Quayvon or even Jamal, is seen as “ethnic” and, therefore, less unique and more…black. Ryken could be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but Quayvon will be stuck working retail for minimum wage, and if he’s really lucky, he’ll be an offensive linemen for an NFL team. Pilot Inspektor (yes, this is the name of a real person), who sounds like he should be the villain in a World War II cartoon, will go on to a tenure track, but Uzoamaka will be lucky to get an entry-level interview for a job she’s more than qualified for.

It’s hard to prove that there is a bias when it comes to people with “different” names in real time, because there’s no way a hiring manager is going to admit that they didn’t pick Le’Kendrick simply because of his name. But there is scientific evidence.

Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, research associates for the National Bureau of Economic Research, published a working paper entitled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination,” and their findings aren’t surprising to any person of color who doesn’t have a traditional name.

The researchers replied to want ads in Boston and Chicago with resumes that had either very black-sounding or very white-sounding names. The white names were more traditional because the experiment was conducted in 2003, before white people got “creative” with names like Ligon. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that people with a white-presenting name were 50% more likely to get called back. Race continues to affect callbacks, even with a higher-quality resume. As in, white-sounding names were 30% more likely than black-sounding names to receive a callback based on their upgraded resume.

As an adult with an ethnically unique name, I have often wondered how much of a hindrance my name has been in terms of landing a job. When I was applying to work as a salon receptionist in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, I got very few interviews in relation to the amount of jobs I applied to. I knew that I was more than qualified for these jobs based on previous employment history and references, but in an area that was predominately white, would they want the first name their clients hear to be Sa’iyda when it could be Paisley? Based on research, and my lived experience, probably not.

We never think about our preconceived notions of people based solely on their names. But they are there. If you hear a name like Rain, you might think “hippies.” If you hear a name like Zolten, you might think the parents are weird, but you’ll shrug it off. But if you hear a name like Shaniqua, you’re going to think “ghetto” and Hakim is automatically a “thug.” We have been automatically conditioned to believe these assumptions (whether we admit it or not), and they are almost always untrue.

When parents are giving their kids unique names, they shouldn’t have to think about how their children will be treated by society based upon their moniker. But, we’d be kidding ourselves to say that these kinds of biases don’t exist. They are evident to every LaShawn who can’t get a job, despite having an undergrad degree and five years’ experience. We can’t continue to ignore it.

If you’re looking for the perfect name, Scary Mommy can help – check out our comprehensive baby name section here!

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