From Keisha to Kylie: On Name-Based Discrimination and Racism

Wow, you speak so well Keisha. Where'd you go to school?

Wow, you speak so well Keisha. Where’d you go to school?

One morning a few years ago, I went to my office early to get some work done. I heard a few recruiters across the room talking about an applicant from Atlanta. I wasn’t paying much attention, but you know how sometimes you just hear stuff because people are loud? Yeah, it was one of those moments. And things were cool until I heard laughter followed by “Let me call Tanneisha and see how ghetto she is.”

Yes, this came from the mouth of a bubbly White woman…in the office…loud as hell…like that sh*t was cool. The worst part wasn’t what she said. It was the laughter that both silently and boisterously condoned her ignorant choice of words. And though I was already one of two lone Black people working in this national company, that incident was a reminder that racism (Or racial ignorance for those that think racism is dead. Bless your heart.) was and still is very much alive. Even in the workplace.

Once the laughter subsided, my chest reminded me of childhood asthma and my palms felt like I was getting ready for the biggest speaking engagement of my life. Hell, it was the biggest speech of my life. However brief it would be, I was about to lecture a White person on why what she said was wrong and how it made me feel. That’s not easy to do.

It took me a few minutes to get myself together. What was I gonna say? How was I gonna say it in a way that didn’t make me come off as angry or easily offended Black guy that steals the fun from the office? How would I not confirm the stereotypes in her head?

About 20 minutes later, I made the longest short walk of my life across the office. There were probably five people in the area. I started to ask her if she could come speak to me in a room, but realized I wanted everyone to hear what I had to say. With my mouth dry and tension in my chest, I quickly dealt with it.

“Hey, I heard what you said about that candidate. I know a Tanneisha and she’s a Harvard MBA grad doing well in life. You shouldn’t judge people when you know nothing about them other than their name.”

Everyone just looked at me. Eyes wide. Mouths shut. Her bubbliness fell flat.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. Really really sorry.”

And that was it. I went back to my desk and never heard anything like that again.

It was a win in the moment, but when you think about it, it was the scratched surface of a much more pervasive issue that still exists today. So it was no surprise to me when I heard that Keisha Austin changed her name to Kylie.

I can’t imagine what it’s like growing up and being teased for having a “ghetto” name by white peers that only know white. That’s not my reality. But I can tell you I’ve seen enough name-based racism and discrimination to last a lifetime. In the years I’ve spent recruiting, I’ve only placed one Black person, and that was last week. I’ve reviewed the resumes of tons of Black applicants, and when I see a name that looks familiar and a profile that checks out on paper, I silently root for the person to pull through in an interview. Not because I think they’re inferior, but because I know the odds will already be stacked against them because of the gift their parent(s) bestowed upon them.

I’ve seen a lot of opinions over the last couple days about Keisha changing her name to Kylie. Many saying her mom didn’t do a good enough job instilling confidence. Others call it a weak move and submission to a messed up a system. I think it’s a sad reality. I also know many Black folks that have altered their names to avoid any bias a recruiter or hiring manager may have based on the name they see on paper.

What do they do? They drop all the letters from their first name except the first one, add a period, and go by their middle name on applications. Lamar Alexander becomes L. Daniel Alexander. Keisha Williams becomes K. Lee Williams. Shameka Goodwin becomes S. Marie Goodwin. So if we’re gonna be mad at Keisha for becoming Kylie, we should also be mad at people that hack their names to optimize for career success…or should we?

The truth is, people do what they think is necessary to live a happier life. And for some of us, that means altering our name the best we can so that we avoid the first round of stereotypes. I say first round because more than likely there will be another round when the White interviewer(s) sees us in person. In fact, those stereotypes may never go away. We’ll constantly feel the need to prove or change ourselves in some way, even if there’s not anything there. It’s just what we’ve come to expect.

I do think things have gotten better over the years, but to ignore the fact that one’s name can impact how they’re perceived, and in turn affect how they view themselves, is just as ignorant as the bubbly girl picking up the phone expecting to speak to a Real Housewife or someone that joined the Bad Girls Club in college.

Besides, it’s easier to change a name than to change someone’s predisposition to ignorance. So sometimes to succeed or feel free, you do what needs to be done.

That doesn’t mean we should stop fighting the fight. All we can do is keep promoting awareness and doing our best to be our best. Not because the chips are stacked against us, but because we wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s the difficult and lifelong task at hand. I know that, even as a Rich.

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  • Pingback: Name-Based Racism and Discrimination is Real. - SBM

  • http://twitter.com/jdrch jdrch

    This is all sad but very true.

  • keisha brown

    this hurt my feelings.
    naming a human being is one of the hardest things in the world – so i made sure to go with my heart but also take our current society into consideration when i did it.
    he passes the supreme court justice test, and im fine with it.

  • Soulflower

    This is a sad truth, and another sad reality is speaking proper English on the phone. People are always surprised to see me when they come to my office because my parents insisted on our speaking that way in our home and in all facets of our lives. They also taught us to read the daily paper and Muhammad Speaks so our conversation would be well rounded and informed. But it is a severe stumbling block when the name you have on paper evokes a stereotype.