I read with interest this piece in the NYTimes yesterday about the racial gap in the job hunt and felt it was worthy of attention, and perhaps comment, in this space—though I really didn’t know how to thoughtfully add to the discussion, as racism in my career has never reared its nasty head (either directly, as I’ve always been a white job applicant, or indirectly, as I’ve never personally witnessed outright workplace racial discrimination).
Luckily Ta-Nehesi Coates steps in and does the heavy lifting for us. His take on all matters black and white is as thoughtful, thought-provoking, and balanced as it gets. If you don’t read him regularly, I would recommend it.
UPDATE: It also occurs to me to acknowledge, in the context of the international affairs arena (though this could apply in any industry), the discrimination a job applicant with a “non-American” sounding name could face. The Times article points out that Barry Jabbar Sykes, ”who has a degree in mathematics from Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, now uses Barry J. Sykes in his continuing search for an information technology position, even though he has gone by Jabbar his whole life. ‘Barry sounds like I could be from Ireland,’ he said.”
Did the name Jabbar imply to potential employers that he’s black (which he is)? Non-American (which he isn’t)? Perhaps Muslim (no discussion of his religious affiliation, which is how it should remain)? Some combination of the three? Do applicants for a U.S.-based job, no matter their race or country of origin, face discrimination if they have a “foreign” name, one that isn’t boilerplate Anglo-Saxon? It’s certainly possible. Perhaps a “foreign-sounding” name indicates the applicant is a non-native English speaker, and thus doesn’t possess language skills that are up to par for the job? Or the requisite cultural skills? Every new job has a learning curve, but perhaps the “non-American” applicant’s learning curve will be too long to make it worthwhile to hire him or her? It’s actually quite easy to see how someone (even myself) could judge an applicant in these ways solely based on their “foreign” name or the “foreign” manner in which their resume or cover letter is put together, etc. (Does my recent rant about “odd” cover letter salutations fall into this category? Seems like it easily could, and this may be something I need to check myself on.) Of course it’s up to every job applicant, no matter their name, race, or country of origin, to put together their application in a professional way–clear, cohesive, concise, well-written, no grammatical or copy-editing errors, suitable for the cultural/national context in which they’re applying. But it’s also up to the hiring manager to view each application and its inherent parts with no prejudgment or bias.
As to those “foreign-sounding” names…if a person’s name says very little about what they look like, it says far, far less about who they actually are and what they can do. Even so, the human temptation to assume based on surface indicators stubbornly remains.