My grade school teachers often told me, “Success is where preparation meets opportunity.” Over the years, I have shared this same mantra with my children, including my daughter. My husband and I encourage her to take her studies seriously, work hard, maintain high moral standards, and give back to the community. Fortunately, she has taken this instruction to heart– she is a bright, spirit-filled, conscientious high-schooler with her eyes set on a good college and a healthcare career helping others. Yet, as she prepares to launch her adult life, the truth is she is less likely to have the same opportunities as others simply because she is a black female. And because of her name.
Viola Davis understands this opportunity gap. She just became the first black woman to win an Emmy for best lead actress in a drama series for her attorney role on “How to Get Away with Murder.” In her acceptance speech, she said, “The only thing that separates women of color from others is opportunity.” Fellow black television stars, Taraji P. Henson of Empire and Kerry Washington of Scandal looked on supportively as Ms. Davis continued, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
Of course she’s right. Strides in Hollywood are slow and black actresses long-suffering. It wasn’t until this millennium that Halle Berry became the first black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress and that shows with strong female leads, like Scandal, Empire, and How to Get Away with Murder have begun to dominate ratings. But unfortunately, Ms. Davis’ statement about the opportunity gap applies not only to black actresses, but to working black women across industries. The truth is, opportunity does knock less for women of color, particularly black women.
Statistics show black women trail in all traditional indicators of career and financial success as compared to their white counterparts, including in wages, wealth, C-suite positions, job security, and home ownership. A large segment of the population may be tempted to dismiss these statistics by pointing to hiring factors such as less educational attainment by black women or less job stability due to greater family obligations. However, even controlling for such differences, this opportunity gap has been proven. For example, studies have shown employers respond more positively to online resumes from applicants with common white names than those with common black names. More specifically, researchers have submitted identical resumes and changed only the names so that in each resume pair one dons a common black name and the other a common white name. The resumes reflect the same level of educational attainment, job history, work experience, and activities. Yet, as the results of one such major study showed, the resumes with white names received interviews at a 50% higher rate than resumes with black names. So applicants with names such as Molly, Amy, and Claire, have greater job opportunity than applicants named Imani, Ebony, and Shanice.
So applicants with names such as Molly, Amy, and Claire have greater job opportunity than applicants named Imani, Ebony, and Shanice.
While we have laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act, which prevent race and gender discrimination in hiring, promotion, termination, pay, and other benefits of employment, ensuring compliance with these laws is very costly and time-consuming for many victims of employment discrimination, especially considering many are already facing financial difficulties because of the discrimination. Many of these workers don’t have access to the information, such as hiring records, to even know that they are victims of discrimination. And even if they suspect illegal discrimination, they may lack the knowledge, emotional stamina, and/or resources to bring a lawsuit. Moreover, even if they do file suit, the legal burdens of evidence production placed on the employee are often fatal to a successful lawsuit.
The harsh reality of employment discrimination has caused many blacks to wrestle with whether to forego distinctively black names for their children in order to improve the odds their children will at least get their foot in the door. And overall, the racial climate of the day is causing many black parents to take extreme measures to protect their children from racism, such as Steve Harvey removing all the hoodies from his sons’ wardrobes. Another example is author and attorney, Lawrence Graham, who a few years ago wrote in a Washington Post article about his rules for his children, including, “If you must wear a T-shirt to an outdoor play event or on a public street, it should have the name of a respected and recognizable school emblazoned on its front.”
The harsh reality of employment discrimination has caused many blacks to wrestle with whether to forego distinctively black names for their children in order to improve the odds their children will at least get their foot in the door.
As for me, I struggle with whether to hammer my children constantly with the stark truth that the choices they make as a black person may be viewed differently simply because of their race, or to instead encourage them to live their lives free of the burdens of conscious and subconscious racial bias endemic to unenlightened individuals and systemic prejudice. I usually end up settling for the unsatisfying middle ground of making my children aware of the racial challenges blacks still face, but also teaching them that fear should not rule their lives.
I usually end up settling for the unsatisfying middle ground of making my children aware of the racial challenges blacks still face, but also teaching them that fear should not rule their lives.
It’s a decision that Viola Davis herself has had to make. When she stepped out on the red carpet in 2012 sporting a short afro instead of her standard straightened wig, it was not a mere hairstyle choice. Due to the traditional euro-centric standards of beauty that are particularly prevalent in the acting world, her hairdo was in fact a courageous act of self-acceptance and defiance of beauty norms. Her husband had encouraged her to, “Step into who you are.” And she did so, even in the face of potentially negative effects on her career.
Ms. Davis has made a name for herself and has kicked open a door that, before now, had been closed to black actresses. It’s a great moment for black women everywhere. Before her win, if past wins were any indication of her chances of winning the Best Actress Emmy, she had a 0% chance of taking the award. Now, those same odds look a little different for future black, female Emmy nominees. The opportunity gap narrows a bit more.
As for my daughter, I want her to make a name for herself as well—in her own way, in whatever way she defines success.
And her actual birth name? It’s Najah. It is of African origin and means “success.” The sad irony is that it also means her resume has a 50% greater likelihood of ending up in the trash.
What do you think? How has Viola Davis’ speech affected you? Have you or will you factor in potential employment discrimination in choosing your child’s name?