“What’s your name?”

This is from a follow-up to Michael Luo’s November 30 article about the racial disparity in unemployment among college graduates. In recent weeks I’ve been watching the Roots miniseries for the first time, and thinking a lot about naming in particular. The multiple scenes where Kunta Kinte struggles to keep his own name and identity make the sometimes-more-subtle question of who gets called what when and by whom impossible to ignore and, in the light of both past and present, troubling (if fascinating) to consider.

Nevertheless, the strategy of hiding race — in particular changing names — can be soul-piercing. It prompted one African-American reader of the article to write that he was reminded of the searing scene in the groundbreaking TV miniseries “Roots” when the runaway slave Kunta Kinte is whipped until he declares that his name is Toby, the name given to him by his master.

Black job seekers said the purpose of hiding racial markers extended beyond simply getting in the door for an interview. It was also part of making sure they appeared palatable to hiring managers once race was seen. Activism in black organizations, even majoring in African-American studies can be signals to employers. Removing such details is all part of what Ms. Orr described as “calming down on the blackness.”

In “Covering: the Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights,” Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at New York University, wrote about this phenomenon not just among blacks but also other minority groups. “My notion of covering is really about the idea that people can have stigmatized identities that either they can’t or won’t hide but nevertheless experience a huge amount of pressure to downplay those identities,” he said. Mr. Yoshino says that progress in hiring has meant that “the line originally was between whites and nonwhites, favoring whites; now it’s whites and nonwhites who are willing to act white.”


from “‘Whitening’ the Résumé,” by Michael Luo, The New York Times, 5 December 2009

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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