From José to Joe, how do we discriminate based on names?

One young job seeker finds that changing his name makes is easier to find a job. This inspires one mom to reflect on reactions to her own husband's birth name and her daughter's name that translates easily to different languages.

Screenshot from BuzzFeed Yellow on YouTube
Jose Zamora recently removed the 's' from his first name after failed attempts to find a job. As soon as 'Joe' applied for the same positions, responses started flowing in.

What’s in a name? It turns out, a lot, according to a video posted by Buzzfeed by a man named José Zamora.  

He was searching for a job online and had sent in dozens of applications and resumes, without yielding any interviews. So he decided to try a little experiment by dropping the “s” and the accent mark from his name, becoming just “Joe.” The résumés and application information he sent as Joe were identical, except for the name. As the video explains, he almost immediately started getting responses from potential employers. 

We don’t know much else about José Zamora than what this video tells, but it does raise a lot of good questions about discrimination, racial and otherwise, based solely on someone’s name. 

With unique names, sometimes the judgment can fly as early as preschool. My sister was a preschool teacher in Los Angeles, Calif. and when I asked her about any experiences she had with unique or foreign names, she immediately had a story to share about a boy who, thankfully, stood up for his own unique moniker. 

“I had a boy student whose name was Lucky and his baby brother was named Chance.” she said. “One of the other kids said, ‘those are dog names!’ Lucky was 3 and shrugged it off, saying, ‘I'm not a dog I'm a superhero!’ "

What a sweet, innocent response from the little boy. My guess is it made everyone laugh and helped to dissipate the tension my sister and her fellow teachers must have felt when Lucky’s classmate – perhaps innocently as well – insulted Lucky and his brother. 

On a broader scale, American culture still has a long ways to go to become discrimination-free when it comes to names. My husband, who is originally from Mexico, has come across some similar discrimination that Mr. Zamora talks about in the video, so his story doesn’t come as much of a surprise to us.

In particular, I always notice when native English speakers relax when my husband says his name is Alex. His full name is Israel Alejandro, but when he came to the US many years ago, he quickly realized that most everyone wildly mispronounced his name, so he decided to switch to using Alex, the English version of Alejandro. It made everyday interactions easier, though when he speaks with his family, they always use the familiar informal version of given name Israel, Isra. 

Understandably, they never could get used to calling him something other than the name he used for all of his childhood. 

Whenever he needs to use his legal name for official business, like opening a credit card, the clerk's face crinkles up in confusion when he says Israel. He often has to repeat it over and over until they get it, and sometimes even if he spells it out for them, most people still look confused. While this isn’t an instance of blatant discrimination, a less obvious confused reaction might help ease the introduction. Smiling politely wouldn’t hurt either.

For my daughter, who’s now 17 months old, my husband and I chose a name that translates in both English and Spanish seamlessly. In English, her name is Mary Constance, and in Spanish it’s Maria Constanza. Picking a name that sounded beautiful in both languages was important to us, for the sake of both our English and Spanish-speaking families, as well as Mary Constance. Since she was born in the US, we decided the English version would be her legal name. 

To be fair to other native English speakers, my name has thrown off my Spanish-speaking family as well.

When my husband and I started dating, almost every phone conversation would eventually come around the question, “how do you say your girlfriend’s name again?” 

While it took some time, I appreciated their persistence in learning it – I felt special and important enough to them that they insisted on getting it just right. Especially when I married into the family, I was so glad to know that I was accepted – unique name and all.

Just like Lucky, I've found that having a sense of humor and a welcoming attitude helps the whole process of teaching others my unique name. 

And while names are an important part of each person's identity, after learning them, we need get to the good stuff – getting to know the person behind the name, which is even more interesting. 

Perhaps José Zamora’s video will remind people to look to the qualities of the person, not just their name, to get the bottom of who a person really is.

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