Trudy Hamilton is a writer and culture critic at Gradient Lair (@GradientLair), and a photographer, writer and eBook author at Drift Sojourn. She has a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice with additional graduate work in Psychology. Her interests include critical media/art examination, and media/art’s impact on a plethora of sociopolitical issues. She identifies as a Womanist/ intersectional feminist. Follow her daily musings on Twitter: @thetrudz
“Raceless” Names, “Acceptable” Names and Employment
A Rose by any other name may be a Black woman who has to worry about whether or not her name makes her “unemployable.” It doesn’t really matter if her actual name provides zero insight into whether or not she can perform the tasks required of a job and doesn’t correlate to her résumé indicating whether or not she has the education and skills that even warrant a callback. Her name alone can mean that a door is never opened to even be slammed in her face later.
We are in the age of the intersection of social media and labor, where protected class and other information is easily accessible prior to interviews and can be legally used to disqualify a candidate (though ridiculously, i.e. an after-hours party photograph interpreted as a person cannot perform their job during work hours) or illegally used to disqualify a candidate (i.e. a profile photo that reveals race, gender, and/or age and this information is used to disqualify a candidate).
However, easy access information was not always the norm. A name, address, high school/college attended and professional interests on a faxed or emailed résumé used to be almost all of the information available to employers prior to interviews, yet this is more than enough information to weed people out.
A zip code can reveal that a candidate lives in an area that’s not suburban or “White.” HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) listed in the education section of a résumé can reveal that the candidate is Black. A name deemed “urban,” “ghetto,” or just “ethnic” is enough information to disregard a candidate altogether. A name that doesn’t indicate race on sight is often assumed to be a White one. The presumed “universality” of Whiteness allows many employers to assume that if a name doesn’t appear to be “ethnic,” it’s a “good name” and must belong to a White person. Some especially think this is true if the résumé pleases them. Except for the times when it isn’t true.
I know these times well. My name is Trudy Hamilton. I’m a Black woman who’s always assumed to be White until proven otherwise.
The name Trudy comes from the name Gertrude. It’s a name from Germanic words meaning “spear” and “strength.” Hamilton alludes to British colonization and slavery in Jamaica, as my family is Jamaican and my siblings and I are first-generation Americans. All of my siblings have rather short first names like mine and a few of the youngest ones have biblical names. I doubt that my late mother named us with the forethought of acceptance in future corporate jobs at White-owned corporations in America; at the same time, I can’t deny the possible impact of Christianity and European colonization in Jamaica on the name choices that she and my dad made. African-Americans have their own beautiful culture, as Nikki Giovanni articulated so well, and some have names–used to discriminate against them during the application process–that my family members don’t have solely because the names aren’t common to our part of the diaspora.
I don’t view the name “Trudy” as some sort of “gift” or “ticket” into corporate America as some Whites and Blacks have suggested to me in 15 years of adulthood (many Black people have absorbed the idea that any name deemed “good” by Whites is in fact a “good name,” so they don’t question the White supremacist and racist concept of culturally Black names being deemed “bad” in the first place).
When I finished college over a decade ago, I started the job search like every other graduate. Though I worked during most of my undergrad years, I assumed finishing my degree meant that I could get jobs that paid better than retail and call centers.I attended PWIs (predominantly White universities), lived in a racially diverse and economically stable area near my college and of course have the name “Trudy.” The combination of these factors consistently conveyed “White woman” to employers. However, every time I walked into the door for an interview, surprise, confusion, irritation, disappointment and even disgust covered White employers’ faces. (It never gets any easier seeing these expressions, even a decade later.)
It no longer mattered that they previously thought that I had a good résumé. It no longer mattered that the pre-screening phone call was pleasant and even charming or humorous at times. The laughs shared or conversation became a long forgotten memory as I, a Black woman, stood in their offices, practically interrupting many all-White spaces with my previously clandestine Blackness revealed. This doesn’t mean that in the over ten years since undergrad I haven’t had a job. I’ve been hired by the surprise-faced Whites more than the disappointment or disgust-faced Whites, obviously. (Completing a Master’s degree almost five years ago, plus the recession, has made it harder to find work outside of my own freelancing work as an artist. Employers seem even angrier when a Black woman with a Master’s degree shows up at an interview, versus one with a Bachelors degree.)
I’ve experienced unprofessional and utterly racist and/or sexist interviews. I’ve been asked questions that are illegal to ask a candidate. I’ve been told upon arrival that the position is filled even though it was open the evening before when I called to confirm the interview time. I’ve witnessed White interviewers have loud and overtly racist conversations with White employees while I was in the lobby waiting for my interview. They knew I was there; they just didn’t care. I’ve had interviewers make specifically racist sexist statements (misogynoir) or “jokes” during the interview. I’ve had conversations via email and phone where the same salary offered in the job posting was offered but once I arrived at the interview, the salary offer was significantly lowered. Once it was lowered by $2,000 a year. Another time, it was lowered by a whopping $10,000 a year. Honestly, these examples are just the icing on a very horrible, over-a-decade-old cake with layers of racism, sexism, and classism as well as general bigotry and unprofessionalism.
None of this even speaks to how perhaps being named “Trudy” versus “Takeeshia” or “Toccarra” meant I eventually got hired at some jobs (versus my résumé being immediately discarded). I still earned significantly lower salaries than equally qualified White women, at times, half of equally qualified White men, and dealt with day in and day out microaggressions, racial/sexual harassment and at times, hostile, threatening overtly racist and sexist environments. Having a “good” name as deemed by Whites means possibly getting in the door of an endless stream of hatred versus the door never being opened or being slammed. The problem is having to choose to endure bigotry for lower pay versus not being allowed in at all. These aren’t real choices. They certainly shouldn’t be based on a name.
Black people and other people of colour in America have a long history of experiencing employment discrimination. There’s a plethora of socioeconomic, educational and social barriers as a result of how White supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy manifests in our society. There are institutional and structural barriers to overcome to even have a shot at getting the education and skills necessary to compete. In the job market, Black people at any educational or socioeconomic level have double the rate of unemployment of their equally qualified White counterpart. Often Black people have to be more qualified to get a position that less-qualified White candidates can get.
In addition to all of this, there are Black job candidates legitimately worried about their names on résumés and even more painful for me to consider, there are Black parents thinking of “White-approved” names for their babies. Worry over names in reference to their children getting jobs 16 to 21 years in the future stresses some Black parents as compared to being able to celebrate the naming process for their babies–a luxury of White privilege that many White parents take for granted.
Names are culturally connected or made up. All words are made up–language as we know it is a human construction. Black people or any other people of colour should not have to have Eurocentric or White-approved names; White supremacy dictates the lie that other cultures, and proper names by proxy, are inherently inferior and thus “bad.”
After watching the disgusting hatred and willful ignorance regarding reporters refusing to pronounce 9-year-old Academy Award nominee Quvenzhané Wallis’ name and many others despising her name, her healthy confidence and prominent self-assurance at only 9, I imagined what her path would be like without acting and at 21, applying for a “regular” job. Would White employers ignore her intellectual merits and skills because her name is not “White” enough? Would people continue to provide arbitrary reasons as to why her name is awful and not realize that their reasons are grounded in White supremacist thinking?
What’s in a name? Apparently another way to value or devalue a person for employment. Apparently another way to reinforce socioeconomic and cultural oppression in our society. Apparently, another example of how, despite the exceptional successes of an Oprah, Condoleezza and Barack, many Black people will continue to face unopened and slammed doors because of their name, let alone other factors. Their abilities won’t even matter. This will always be wrong.
A quick note about images in this series: each essay includes an image of a place that holds personal meaning for the author.
Let’s Talk About Names: Rawls is the previous post in the series.
Let’s Talk About Names: Minna is the next post in the series.
The entire series is available at the Let’s Talk About Names Tumblr.
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