Naming Privilege

What’s in a name?

A recent NYTimes Motherlode post says that there’s plenty. Nikisia Drayton’s piece, “Will a ‘Black’ Name Brand My Son With Mug Shots Before He’s Even Born?” delves into the potential ramifications over giving her son to be a “black name.” Drayton ends up implementing the “Google test” – searching potential names to see what pops up. The multitude of mug shots that come up with certain names unnerve her.  Drayton’s fears aren’t completely unfounded: there have been various studies that have shown a racial bias in hiring practices, particularly related to names – causing some people of color to “whiten” their resumes. Sadly, this is not a phenomenon that has faded over time (or with the election of a black president. So, keep trying, people that are crying out over our post-racial society).

I understand the fears Drayton is working through. After all, one of the comments spurred by her article included this one (h/t to FranChescaleigh):


You know what creates an awkward work environment? Having to work with racist jerks.

There have been many responses to Drayton’s piece, each putting their own spin on this topic.

From Carolyn Edgar:

We black people cannot racism-proof our own lives, let alone our children’s lives. It is fruitless to think that naming a child a name that doesn’t “sound black” offers any measure of protection against harm or ensures access to equal opportunity. The officers that shot Jonathan Ferrell didn’t bother to find out that he had a safe name, that he was a college graduate, that he had a fiance and a family he simply wanted to return home to. He was shot for seeking help from the police while black. No one knew his name until after he was already dead.

From Shay Stewart-Bouley:

Living in Maine, I have met more than a few young Black men raised here who are have very white names, very white mannerisms and overall are safe and respectable young men of color and all have had moments where the cloak of respectability that is all the rage in the Black middle class and above circles did not protect them from the harsh reality of bigotry.

From Anika Myers Palm:

Maybe Drayton is worried about the much-ballyhooed studies indicating that employers will pass over the resumes of people with black-identified names. My guess, though, is that anyone who would be biased against someone because that of a black-identified name is absolutely a person who would be biased against someone for actually being black, so Drayton’s son wasn’t likely to get too far with that person anyway. I’ve always figured that anyone who would be biased against me because of my name wasn’t anyone with whom I wanted to have any sort of connection anyway.

But all three women touch upon something that hits home with me.

I have a unique name. You’re not going to find “Avital” on souvenir magnets or mugs, and my name is mispronounced 90% of the time. It’s an “ethnic” sounding name for sure, but to be honest, I haven’t really worried too much about what others have thought about it, even when submitting my resume. And that is because, despite the otherness that my name may purport, I’m still fully aware of my visible white privilege. All three women I linked to above note that anyone who would pass over a name due to it sounding “black” would pass over a black applicant during an in-person interview. And that’s where my privilege comes into play. Google my name and you get my white, smiling face staring right back at you.

(You also get this picture  – I have no idea what it is, but I kind of love it…)



Do I understand the difficulty of having a hard-to-pronounce name? Yes.

Do I gripe and moan because baristas, office managers, and telemarketers rarely say my name correctly? All.The.Time.

Do I ever worry that my name will cause me to get passed over for a job? Rarely, but I know the possibility is there. I’m also fully aware that it’s not the same as being a POC with a unique name.

I wished we lived in a society where name privilege wasn’t actually a real thing and where mothers-to-be like Nikisia Drayton didn’t feel compelled to “Google Test” potential names.


5 thoughts on “Naming Privilege

  1. My kids all have less common names. One of them is commonly mistaken for a girl by his name. I was warned often that choosing uncommon names will make life harder for them, but they don’t have to worry about tribal names or the color of their skin in white dominated businesses. I have to wonder if it would be different if they were of a different racial backround.

  2. Pingback: Why I’m a Paranoid Black Man | J Prophet | [Modern Times]

  3. Both Hun and I have very different names. We are also non-white, I mixed various and he of hispanic origin. We choose our child’s name based on wanting it to be unique, as we believe he is. Both Hun and I know what it’s like to have our names mispronounced, to be judged based on our names, yet we also know that no matter what we’d be judged. Our child will, unfortunately, in our society and culture, have the same difficulties. We “plan” on continuing to raise him to be an accepting person and to know himself as a person, without much concern over his skin complexion, his heritage, or his name.

    • Thank you for sharing! And I think you hit on the point that many of the women who have been writing about this make – that for many POC, they’re already fighting an uphill battle, regardless (unfortunately) of name)

      On Tue, Oct 1, 2013 at 4:38 PM, The Mamafesto

  4. That sounds insane to me. I have always thought you did not have name racism in the USA.
    I live in Germany with my family. When we had our baby boy and decided to give him name Ezra, we had to think and re-think so much. First, in Europe if a name finishes with the letter A, everyone believes it’s a girl’s name, second it doesn’t sound European and people might look down on it. Can you imagine how shallow and intolerant it is?
    Every name is beautiful in its way and must be respected.
    As for Avital, it’s just a lovely name. All the girls I know with this name are so intelligent and nice.

    Thanks for this post. Love reading your blog.

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