When it Comes to Getting Work, What's in a Name?

Could the ethnic name bestowed on you by your parents hurt your career?
Publish date:
November 26, 2012
race, employment, names

Before I started my now-amazing career in publishing, I had 37 editorial assistant job interviews over the course of 12 months. THIRTY-SEVEN. I'd seen damn near every publishing HR representative in Manhattan and New Jersey, as well as several senior editors and editor-in-chiefs. I always had a second interview and sometimes a third; a few times it came down to me and another candidate -- I was never picked until I was. (Instantaneous crying fits became a part of my daily routine. My poor boyfriend regularly picked me up off the floor.)

I just chalked it up to it being a numbers game -- you can't fail if you don't give up, right? Plus, while 37 may seem excessive, it's actually quite common in this particular industry. EA positions are often ultimately filled by current or former interns, so it's rare that a member of the general public is even given the chance to apply and interview. I also read somewhere (years ago) that it usually takes entry-level applicants a year to find their first EA position, so I guess my situation was quite common.

With all that said, I wonder how it works in other industries. If you're genuinely qualified, is it easy to get called in for an interview?

Apparently not for everyone.

Take Yolanda Spivey for example. After two years and three hundred digital applications, African-American Spivey set out to conduct a sociological experiment with Monster.com. She set up a new profile with the exact same previous job experience, merely changing her name to Bianca White in an effort to be perceived as less ethnic. (She also ticked White on the diversity questionnaire.) Surprise, surprise -- suddenly calls from prospective employers came rolling right on in. (When you have time, read the comments here and here. They're quite eye opening and disheartening to say the least.)

This to me seems like another utterly disgusting form of underlying racism. To be denied the opportunity to even apply for a job that you're perfectly suited for just because of your name seems so absurd. And it lends credibility to our country's Affirmative Action laws. And it explains why unemployment remains high even though there are plenty of jobs available that have yet to be filled.

For the record, I hated my name, India-Jewel C. Jackson, growing up. India-Jewel often became Indian, American Indian, Indiana, Indianapolis, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, India-Jew -- I could go on and on. (Kids can be so cruel!) And while I don't think my ethnic name is as ridiculous as some, I do think it automatically denotes my race. (Which I'm proud of.)

And I've always accurately filled out diversity questionnaires. When I'm asked my race, I proudly tick Black. Now I wonder if that has ever hurt my chances -- and if I should decline moving forward.

One last thing. I hate to admit it, but I will say this: I'll be sure to take Spivey's experiment into consideration when it comes time to name my children in the future. I want them to have every opportunity in life; I'd hate to see them denied the chance to succeed because of what I wrote on their birth certificate.

Keep up with me over on Twitter: @IndiaJewelJax.