The Impact Of Your Name

John Stossel and Kristina Kendall, ABC News, September 20, 2006

Giving your kid a unique name is the hot new thing in Hollywood. Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin named their firstborn Apple. Jason Lee gave his son the name Pilot Inspektor–that’s not a misspelling, it’s spelled with a “k.” Earlier this month, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes posed for Vanity Fair with their uniquely named daughter, Suri.

Unusual names—like Shabita and Shakira—are also big in the black community.

“Thirty percent of black baby girls in a given year in California have a name that no one else has,” said Roland Fryer, an economist and assistant professor at Harvard University, who has taken a special interest in uniquely black names.

“White names tend to be things like Molly,” Fryer said. “We had 16 million names in California. We only had six black Mollys and not one white Lakisha. Some of the blacker names tend to be things like Aida. Reginald is a very black name.”

This matters because studies of resumes have found that people with black-sounding names are less likely to get callbacks.

Putting Names to the Test

In 2004, “20/20” brought together a group of young black professionals who doubted that the black-sounding names on their resumes made a difference. We put 22 pairs of names to the test, posting identical resumes, with the only difference being the name.

Since the content of the resumes was identical, it would make sense that they’d get the same attention. However, the resumes with the white-sounding names were actually downloaded 17 percent more often by job recruiters than the resumes with black-sounding names.

“You really never know why you don’t get called back for that interview. I thought it’s because of my job skills. But I never thought it was because of my name,” said Tremelle, a participant in the study.

Jack Daniel, a professor of communication at the University of Pittburgh, has done research that shows both white and black children prefer white-sounding names.

Daniel asked a group of 4- and 5-year-old children a series of questions. The children were asked to answer the questions based solely on names. For example, “Who is the smartest, Sarah or Shaniqua?”

“Sarah,” one boy answered.

Daniel asked, “Who would you like to play with, Tanisha or Megan?”

“Megan,” another child said.

Daniel asked, “Who took the bite out of your sandwich? Do you think it was Adam or Jamal?”

Another boy said, “Jamal.”

Inferring From a Name

Why do we discriminate based on names? It may not be about race but instead what some names signal about a person’s background.

“A distinctively black name tells us that a person typically comes from a neighborhood that has higher poverty, lower income, more likely to have teen mothers, et cetera,” Fryer said.

There’s new research that shows names may even tell us about more than just social background; a name may affect future decisions about marriage and career.

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Avoiding Bad Names

Pelham says names can have a negative impact, as well.

“My cousin Dinky—not going to become the CEO of a major corporation,” he said.

So should parents steer away from being clever when naming their children?

“Advice to parents: It might seem cool to give your kid a unique name. But there are many, many more disadvantages to doing that than advantages,” Pelham said.

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