This Person Doesn’t Sound White

Sep 21, 2003

Kofi? Mani? Sule? Bijan?

Choosing a name for my future son has turned out to be much more complicated than I thought when I started searching online for possibilities.

Reza? Omar? Darius? Malcolm?

While I entertained the sound and significance of each potential moniker (Kofi is Twi for "born on Friday"–what if he’s born on Tuesday?), I started to wonder about the consequences of giving him an obviously "ethnic" name. It would reflect his multiracial heritage (black, Iranian, Irish, Hungarian) and hopefully contribute to his sense of cultural pride. But the name would also likely be misspelled, mispronounced, and misunderstood in a country that is largely still ignorant and suspicious of otherness.

My own name, Ziba (zee-bah), has mainly evoked expressions of admiration (How unusual!) and curiosity (How do you spell that?). But on occasion, the revelation that it is Persian, as is my father, has been met with awkward silence or stares. A Middle Eastern name is not particularly welcome in the U.S., especially in the current anti-Muslim/Arab/Middle East political environment.

So as I contemplate my son’s name, I’m torn between the desire to emphasize his ethnicity and the desire to minimize the potential for profiling and discrimination against him. While racial discrimination has been understood historically as a practice based on an individual’s skin color, recent research is showing that it is also often based on a person’s name or speech, with the same destructive effects.

What’s in a Name?
A name–and the racial group associated with it–can make the difference between getting a job interview and remaining unemployed, according to one recent study. Researchers at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sent 5,000 fake resumes in response to a variety of ads in two major newspapers–the Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune. Names on the resumes were selected to sound either distinctively Anglo (e.g., Brendan Baker) or African American (e.g., Jamal Jones). The study revealed that the fictitious job seekers with white names were 50 percent more likely to get calls for interviews. Those stats translate into the need for blacks to mail 15 resumes for every 10 resumes sent by whites in order to land one interview. Sadly, this pattern of affirmative action for white job hunters emerged even among federal contractors and firms that advertised themselves as "equal opportunity" employers.

Besides changing their names, there appears to be little black applicants can do to level the playing field. As part of the study, researchers created two sets of resumes–high quality and low quality–to reflect the actual pool of job seekers looking for work in fields ranging from sales, administrative support, clerical services, and customer services. But even having a higher quality resume with such credentials as volunteer experience, computer skills, and special honors failed to improve the black applicants’ chances of getting their foot in the door. "The payback that an African American applicant gets from building these skills is much lower than the payback a white applicant would get," the University of Chicago’s associate professor Marianne Bertrand noted in a summary of the study.

African and African American names aren’t the only ones singled out for prejudice, of course, and the job sphere isn’t the only realm in which such discrimination gets played out. In the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s (ADC) "Report on Hate Crimes and Discrimination Against Arab Americans: The Post-September 11 Backlash," the authors noted that among the dozens of instances of discrimination by airlines that occurred between September 2001 and October 2002, "the passenger’s name or perceived ethnicity" alone was often sufficient cause for unprovoked removal from a flight. Discrimination often took place whether or not the passenger was actually Arab or Muslim, resulting in many South Asians and others falling victim to the ignorance of the pilot or another passenger. According to the ADC, one Indian Canadian woman was removed from a plane because her last name was mispronounced as "Attah" and therefore perceived as Middle Eastern. Other passengers were prevented from traveling because their names were similar to those on the FBI watch list.

This type of profiling quickly spread with Jim-Crow-like effects. "We’ve found that persons named Osama are being regularly denied services, whether in restaurants, stores, or other areas," says the ADC’s media director Laila Al-Qatami. Another example recorded by the ADC describes how an Indian American couple were handcuffed and interrogated after purchasing Broadway tickets and specifying that their seats be located in the middle of the theater. Their crime? The "foreign name and accent" of the ticket buyer had made the ticket agent suspicious enough to call the police.

While the ADC has documented more than 700 violent incidents and 800 cases of employment discrimination against Arab Americans since 9/11, many more go unreported and unchallenged. "It is hard to easily label what happens as discrimination. For example, if a person is denied housing or not offered a position with a company," notes Al-Qatami, "can this be linked to discrimination or is the candidate not truly qualified? It is a fine line."

Linguistic Profiling

Names aren’t the only potential cues to a person’s racial identity: speech may also reveal–or conceal–ethnicity. While searching for housing in the predominantly white neighborhood of Palo Alto, California, in the mid-1990s, John Baugh made appointment after appointment over the phone only to be turned away at the landlord’s door. "I was told that there was nothing available," says the Stanford University professor of education and linguistics, who happens to be African American. It didn’t take long for him to realize that prospective owners were mistaking his phone voice for that of a white person and inviting him to view apartments. When he showed up for the appointments, he was repeatedly told that there had been some misunderstanding.

This personal affront piqued Baugh’s professional curiosity. While it’s established that landlords have long discriminated against prospective tenants on the basis of skin color, Baugh decided to test whether they did so on the basis of brief telephone conversations. Using three distinct dialects he learned while growing up in Los Angeles–African American Vernacular English, Chicano, English and Standard American English–he placed calls in response to ads for apartments in five Northern California neighborhoods. During those calls, he used various pseudonyms, such as Juan Ramirez for the Chicano English dialect. What emerged was clear proof of bias against the black and Chicano dialects in predominantly white locales. "[The] research demonstrates that voice is a surrogate for race in many instances when people choose to discriminate over the telephone or use the telephone as the means of discrimination," he explains. Two University of Pennsylvania sociologists uncovered similar results in a separate study of rental housing discrimination.

With his evidence, Baugh, who wrote the book Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice (Oxford University Press), has been able to help bolster the claims of a dozen housing discrimination victims in court. Baugh and his colleagues at Stanford are also currently investigating linguistic profiling in education and employment. He cites examples of elementary and secondary school students being placed on non-academic reading tracks based on their accents. "The linguistic profiling that is taking place does have direct educational consequences for the child," he adds–consequences that can affect their ability to later compete in the job market.

Double-Edged Discrimination Data

Research that verifies the persistence of prejudice against people of color because of names and speech can have both positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, employers and landlords can be challenged in court, and in the best-case scenarios, they can also become more aware of subconscious discriminatory practices in order to change them. Shanna L. Smith of the National Fair Housing Alliance, which documents reports of housing discrimination nationwide, has gone so far as to encourage companies to offer employees sensitivity training so they can avoid discriminating and resulting lawsuits, according to an article in Legal Affairs.

But Baugh acknowledges that the validation of racial identification by voice can also have negative effects. Prejudiced property owners who have gotten wind of his research can simply discriminate more carefully by either making some appointments with people of color when they have no intention of renting to them, or claiming that despite the evidence, they personally can’t identify a person’s race by the sound of his or her voice. "I had hoped that this research would expose and eliminate the discrimination but it’s far more complicated than that," he says. "If the result…is that landlords grant appointments and then deny someone housing face to face, that, to me, is not a real improvement." On the other hand, he points to instances in which criminal courts have allowed police officers and witnesses to identify a suspect solely by the sound of his voice–i.e. I heard the voice of a black/Latino man. This has happened in rape cases when the victim could not see her attacker and other cases in which police used wiretaps but did not actually see a suspect. Such testimony has succeeded and rarely been challenged in criminal cases. "This issue of voice identification has cut both ways against minority speakers," he explains. "It cuts against them as defendants and it cuts against them as plaintiffs."

While blacks have long been the victims of such bias, Latinos, Asians, and Arab Americans–not to mention other vulnerable groups such as the elderly and disabled–are similarly profiled, experts note. Evidence of discrimination and laws to prevent it (such as the Fair Housing Act and Civil Rights Act) have failed to eradicate "talking while black" and other examples of linguistic racism. They remain largely invisible acts of bigotry–bloodless crimes that injure people of color while quietly reinforcing and perpetuating segregation and white supremacy. Perhaps by the time my future son is an adult, some 50 years after legal discrimination officially ended, he will grow up in a society where his ethnic name and heritage is truly accepted and not punished.