Celebrate Black History Month: What’s in a Name pt. 2? Who I “am”

My mother did not have the easiest pregnancy with me; she was older, and it took a toll on her. She had a long labor that had followed a long 18th birthday party two days prior, so she was exhausted when I finally made my entrance into the world. She told the family that they could figure out my name and just let her know later (this would lead to her calling me Jiffy for a month as she tried to remember Tiffy).

My middle name was selected by my great grandmother which no one debated. The issue was my first name. I hear it was a spirited debate that ended up going back and forth over the names Tiffany or Shavon. It was looking like Shavon would win until my father (note a theme) decided to offer his opinion. He said two things: one, that he was not naming his baby after a gas station…. Shavon… Chevron you get the idea. His other point, which was the one that had the most sway, was that if they named me Shavon I may never get a job and he wasn’t planning on staying alive for a century to take care of me. That pretty much ended the debate and I was named Tiffany.

Content of Their Character

Now of course my father was being a tad bit confrontational regarding what I should be named but he made a valid point. Black people are not only discriminated against based off skin color but even name choices can harm us. In 2015, Raven-Symoné (who coincidently has an alternative spelling of Simone) courted controversy when she admitted “I’m not about to hire you if your name is Watermelondrea. It’s just not gonna happen. I’m not gonna hire you.” Now of course, many of us in the Black community at the time, her parents included, rolled our eyes and were ready to cancel her for her ignorance against essentially herself.  Still, what she demonstrated is how internalized anti-Blackness can be even within the Black community.

It has been proven many times that when it comes to job applications that applicants with "Black" sounding names are less likely to get interviews even if they meet qualifications. Names often can act like a dog whistle indicating in some cases a person’s religion, race, ethnicity, or country origin. However, a recent study shows that not all Black names are weighed equally as the additional component of class can be derived by name choice, as well. This gives the indication that even studies on names display bias in that they are making assumptions on what is and isn’t considered a “Black” name. I know many Black professionals who have opted to use their middle names instead of their first as many Black parents give their children a beautiful first name that sounds more ethnic and accompany it with a “White” sounding name that can be used for professional usage. Sadly, those with "White sounding names" end up having to send less resumes out when job hunting than those who have “Black” sounding names.

This kind of discrimination falls equally in hand with “culture fit” that also locks many Black people out of employment. There is a belief that Black people automatically won’t fit some companies’ culture, especially in Silicon Valley. Culture fit usually speaks more to the personal identifications of the search committee versus the actual qualifications, diversity and the "fit" the applicants brings in. When culture fit is done well it can produce higher retention levels, productivity, performance and overall job satisfaction but unfortunately more organizations do it wrong, creating instead an echo chamber which can lead to tone deaf marketing that may make statements that a company doesn’t mean to make. Embracing diversity can lead to better financial returns in business but how to do it effectively can be challenging to some companies.

Many companies that seek to address this issue may hire a Chief of Diversity, and have diversity trainings but that usually isn’t enough. Most times those diversity chiefs aren’t empowered to make large systemic changes and/or newly hired Black employees are left to do the job or at least appear to do the job by being a statistic that a company can point to when asked. In truth, it has been proven that diversity training actually can result in people rebelling against that training by doing the opposite. Most diversity training until probably recently focused on the punitive repercussions of discrimination and were involuntary; thus, likely causing more animosity. That isn’t to say that diversity training doesn’t have benefits but what that training looks like may need to change.

Break Eggs to Make an Omelet

That leads to the question, what is the solution? There are advantages and disadvantages to diversity that should all be considered prior to thinking about making culture shifts to be more diverse and equitable. That may mean before any action is taken that a comprehensive evaluation of an institution's current efforts and failures should be done first. Some of the things that should be considered is thinking about how diverse the executive team and board is; this honestly reflects a large portion of an institution’s culture and signals to potential customers and future hires. Remove names and culturally identifying information from resumes if it is not pertinent to the position and share that this information will be removed as part of your job announcement. Encourage employees to be their authentic selves at work and that they are welcomed to share their opinions. If English isn’t their first language, encourage them speak in their own native tongue, if they are religiously observant make sure you accommodate this. Furthermore, allow for multiple ways that staff can share opinions, anonymously and not; consider progressive stacking, as often Black voices are silenced even in well meaning institutions. Strengthen your anti-discrimination policies; make sure they have teeth and focus on restorative justice. Look closely to see if you have bias in your evaluation process and that employees of all classifications have opportunities to grow as employees. Hire independent consultants to review your diversity efforts, but make sure to review those consultants qualifications as well and see if they offer transparency in their own hiring practices. As terrible as it sounds, some diversity consultants may have the same issues with diversity in their own organizations.

Overall, when thinking about diversity, inclusion and equity, it’s not just about hiring Black people or any ethnic group believing that getting them in the door is enough. We must think about what environments we are bringing these individuals into. So, if you find yourself part of a hiring team consider where your biases are and consider ways to combat them. Even if you are never part of a hiring committee, consider how you support Black people and other employees of different abilities, ethnicities, religions, and cultures. Think about how you interact with individuals with names that imply ethnicity and race; are you treating them the same? If you aren’t, make a conscious effort to correct that. Join or start affinity groups if your place of employment has them/allows them. If your place of employment celebrates holidays that may have religious connotations, consider going to more neutral celebrations or start acknowledging all the religious holidays practiced by individuals in your organization in meaningful ways. If you notice that someone Black in your organization often isn’t asked their opinion, gets talked over or does not get acknowledged for their efforts, make it a point to be a champion for them. There are no easy quick solutions for discrimination, but I would like to think that as we move forward with our eyes open to the issues in our businesses, schools, and institutions we can actively make changes so that no one feels they can’t be their most authentic selves and Black parents can feel free to name our children whatever we want without worrying if we have ruined their futures by doing so.

To Learn More

The Civil Rights Act and the Battle to End Workplace Discrimination A 50 Year History, book cover
The Leader's Guide to Unconscious Bias How to Reframe Bias, Cultivate Connection, and Create High-pe, book cover
Just Work Get Sh*t Done, Fast & Fair, book cover