Tell us about your Name, Prof

Inevitably, my students turn the question back on me: “Tell us about your name, prof?” As I was born to an African American father and a Persian Indian mother, my parents wanted me to have a first name with Arabic origins, but one that was short enough, so English speakers wouldn’t butcher it. They were mostly successful, except that my friends still call me “Ru” … nicknames are a form of endearment after all. What I find amusing these days is getting messages addressed to “Mr. Benjamin” or “Mr. Ruha.” Since Benjamin is more often used as a masculine first name, people whom I have never met routinely switch the order in their heads and mis-gender me as a result. I sometimes wonder whether I receive some fleeting male privilege – more deference, perhaps. This, after all, is the reason why some of my female students say their parents gave them more gender-neutral names: to delay (if not diminish) sexist assumptions about their qualifications and capacities. Similar rationale for my Black, Asian, and Latinx students with stereotypically White-sounding names: “My parents didn’t want me to have a hard time,” “They wanted me to have a normal American name” (where “American” is always coded “White”).

The Apples and Norths of the world tend to experience less ridicule and more fascination, owing to their celebrity parentage, which tell us that there is nothing intrinsic to a “good” name, nothing that makes for it.

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So, is the solution for those with racially stigmatized names to code- switch by adopting names that offer more currency on the job market? Or does this simply accommodate bias and leave it in place? In a number of informal experiments, job seekers put this idea to the test. Jose Zamora dropped one letter from his first name and found that “Joe Zamora,” with all the same education and credentials, magically started hearing from employers. Similarly, after two years of searching for a job, Yolanda Spivey changed the name on her résumé to “Bianca White,” and suddenly her inbox was full of employers interested in interviewing her. What stunned Yolanda most was that, while the same résumé was posted with her real name on the employment website, employers were repeatedly calling “Bianca,” desperate to get an interview.

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