Sunday, December 6, 2009

[ZESTCaste] ‘Whitening’ the Résumé

'Whitening' the Résumé

December 5, 2009

Tahani Tompkins was struggling to get callbacks for job interviews in
the Chicago area this year when a friend made a suggestion: Change
your name. Instead of Tahani, a distinctively
African-American-sounding name, she began going by T. S. Tompkins in

Yvonne Orr, also searching for work in Chicago, removed her bachelor's
degree from Hampton University, a historically black college, leaving
just her master's degree from Spertus Institute, a Jewish school. She
also deleted a position she once held at an African-American nonprofit
organization and rearranged her references so the first people listed
were not black.

The dueling forces of assimilation and diversity have long battled for
primacy in the American experience, most acutely among
African-Americans. It's not clear that assimilation has gained an edge
here in the waning days of the decade, but the women's behavior —
"whitening" the résumé — is certainly not isolated. Ms. Tompkins and
Ms. Orr were among the more than two dozen college-educated blacks
interviewed for an article about racial disparities in hiring
published last week on the front page of The New York Times. A
half-dozen said they had taken steps to hide their race, or at least
dial back the level of "blackness" signaled in their résumés.

That seemed startling somehow, maybe because of the popular perception
that affirmative action still confers significant advantages to black
job candidates, a perception that is not borne out in studies.
Moreover, statistics show even college-educated blacks suffering
disproportionately in this jobless environment compared with whites,
as that article reported.

But if playing down blackness is a common strategy born of necessity,
perceived or real, it still takes a psychic toll, maybe a greater one
now, as people calibrate identity more carefully.

"I wrestled with it a great deal," said Ms. Orr, who has worked for 15
years in fund-raising for nonprofits. "I wrestled with what kind of
message I was sending to my children in raising them to be very proud
of whom they are."

There have been ebbs and flows, however, in the degree to which
"blackness" has been aggressively celebrated by African-Americans. Ms.
Orr's parents were Black Panthers, part of the black power and black
pride movement that came to the fore in the late 1960s. But even Ms.
Orr's mother, counseling her about her résumé, said, "You don't need
to shout out, 'I'm black.' "

Most of those interviewed described their strategy as a way to
eliminate one more potential obstacle that might keep them from at
least getting the chance to make it to an interview so they could
present their case in person. Experts said that course might be wise.
Research has shown that applicants with black-sounding names get fewer
callbacks than those with white-sounding names, even when they have
equivalent credentials. Affirmative action programs in the private
sector have largely receded since the early 1980s, replaced by a
variety of diversity efforts rarely shown to be effective in raising
minority representation.

"The average organization either doesn't have diversity programs, or
has the type that is not effective and can even lead to backlash,"
said Alexandra Kalev, a University of Arizona sociologist who has
studied such efforts. "So in the average organization, being black
doesn't help."

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

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."

John L. Jackson Jr., a professor of anthropology and communications at
the University of Pennsylvania and author of "Racial Paranoia," said
he wondered about the "existential cost" of this kind of behavior,
even if the adjustments were temporary and seem harmless.

"In some ways, they are denying who and what they are," he said. "They
almost have to pretend themselves away."


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