A few weeks ago, after I ordered a drink at a local coffee shop, the teenager working the counter asked for my name. “Sarah,” I told her.
“Omigod, your name is Sarah?” she said, mouth agape. “Like, all of the Sarahs I know are totally annoying blond cheerleader types.”
You, too, huh?
My first name has been the bane of my existence since childhood. “Why did your momma and daddy name you that?” incredulous school friends always asked me. As an adult, I inevitably get the less direct “Sarah? What kind of name is that?” when introducing myself. After all, Sarah, as the girl in the coffee shop so tactfully pointed out, is an unusual name for a 20-something black woman.
I grew up surrounded by kids with names not usually found in baby books with smiling pink cherubs on their covers. Inventive names like LaTonya, Quanisha, and Sharica. Afrocentric names like Aisha, Imani, and Jamar. Even my own kid brother—Jamahl—got a name that fit in.
There have been many famous African-American Sarahs throughout history—jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, inventor Sarah Goode. Madame C.J. Walker—a brilliant businesswoman who brought us the relaxer kit (or an oppressor of black women’s hair, depending on whom you ask)—started out life as a Sarah.
But those women aren’t a part of my generation. Among African-Americans my age, the Sarahs, Jessicas, and Jennifers are few and far between—I know because I seek them out. And among my age cohort, I’ve spotted only two other Sarahs—New York poet Sarah Jones, and, um, there’s a woman on Making the Band 2 whose name is Sarah, too.
When I was a kid, friends would wrinkle their noses upon hearing my name. As I matured, so did the attacks on my name. It was a slave name, declared one college friend, a former Jennifer who had shed the mark of the oppressor. In an anthropology class, I learned about the “Hottentot Venus,” a Khoisan woman who was taken from South Africa in the early 1800s and exhibited around Europe as a freak—a symbol of racial inferiority and the basis for many of the backward notions about black female sexuality that still exist today. Her name? Sara, of course.
Until a few weeks ago, the only way my common name had ever benefited me, so far as I could tell, was that when I was little, I was able to easily find colorful barrettes and T-shirts with “Sarah” printed on them, while my friends Keya, Robrita, and Vashti had no such luck.
A recent study conducted by researchers Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago and Sendhil Mullainathan of MIT, however, has forced me to reconsider the idea that my name is an albatross. The pair sent two sets of resumes to more than 1,300 job advertisements in Boston and Chicago—one set sporting names common among blacks, another set with names common to whites. Despite identical experience, education, and skills, the applicants with white-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to receive responses from employers than those with black-sounding names.
The results of the study were reported in nearly every major newspaper across the country with headlines such as “It helps to have a ‘white’ name.” Well, no shit. Some friends and family members I’ve talked to have quibbled, in a losing cause, about whether names can be labeled white or black. But once they admitted they could tell the difference, none of them were surprised by the findings.
“I have a totally qualified resume, and I get no respect, no love, when it comes to applying for jobs,” says Southeast resident Ayana Edwards, 26. “I love my name. I realize that I have an ethnic name, but that’s not the problem—it’s other people’s perspectives that are the problem.”
It was nice to entertain the brief and shameful thought that having the name Sarah was going to be of some use to me, but the reality is that getting your resume thrown in the short stack doesn’t mean anything. Any employer who would throw out a resume from Tyrone or Ebony is unlikely to hire people of color upon meeting them, even if they’re named Hunter or Thor. Plus, you have to waste bus fare just to have the door slammed in your face.
“I think that some jobs have called me in for an interview because of my name, and because they may think that I’m white,” says Alexandria resident Kimberly Minor, 26. “But it doesn’t matter, because they’re going to see that I’m not when I show up for the interview.”
The study, like most studies dealing with racial discrimination, is an eye-opener for sheltered white folks, but unless they’re going to start naming their kids Jabari and Nia to offset employer bias, who cares? Most black folks already know that racist employers are less likely to call in people with names that they think “sound black,” and most of us don’t care. I’ll name my kids Alize and Lexus if I want to, because, at the end of the day, a Kaitlyn is not going to be any more sheltered from racism than a Ka’shea.
The results of the study are disturbing, but they by no means tell those of us with “ethnic”-sounding names to throw in the towel or guarantee success for those of us with “white” names. After all, the wealthiest black woman in the whole wide world is an Oprah, and we’ve got a Condoleezza in the White House—proof that even if a midwife misspells your name on your birth certificate or your mother decides to take some Italian word, change the spelling of it, and assign it to you, there are still prominent careers and boatloads of money to be had.
Should the next generation of black parents stop taking pride in creating custom names for their progeny, or worry that their children will be at a disadvantage just because they have names that reflect their heritage? Among the children of my friends, there are a Tarik, a Damari, a Damontae, a Kiera, and even a Wonderful. Even in an imperfect world, parents should be able to, and should continue to, name their children whatever they want to. Even, if they so choose, Sarah. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Robert Meganck.