What’s In a Baby Name? For Some of Them, No Interview

By NICK CHILES

The Social Security Administration released the list of top baby names for 2011 and as I perused the list, I thought about the oft-repeated line among black parents when it comes to baby naming: make sure your kid gets the interview. In other words, if you give your child a name that’s too “black,” future employers will toss your kid’s resume in the trash can without even considering whether the child is qualified for the job.

So what does it mean when a name is too “black?” And too black for whom—white people, snooty black people, Asian people, old people, dumb people?

These are fascinating questions—and the answers probably depend on whom you ask. It’s sort of like what former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”

So I grabbed the list in search of the highest ranked name that absolutely would not get the interview—in my opinion, of course. The winner?

With these things, for some reason you have to go over to the girl side for the most egregious violators. Why is it that we get so much more creative with the girl names than the boy names?
Anyway, I digress.

The winner was Nevaeh (at least in the state of Georgia). Somehow Nevaeh is the 27th most popular girl name in Georgia. Not only have I never seen the name Nevaeh before, if I saw those particular letters written down on a piece of paper, I wouldn’t even be sure it was a name. How is it possible that Nevaeh is 27th and I’ve never seen or heard of it before? But there were 217 girls who were given that name last year in my home state of Georgia. It beat Ashley and Zoe and Aaliyah and Savannah and Caroline—names that show up on every girls’ soccer team in the U.S. How many soccer teams have a Nevaeh? Does yours? I think I’m demanding a recount.

There was a name whose popularity dangerously plummeted between 2010 and 2011: Jamarion. There were 112 fewer Jamarions who made their way into the world between 2010 and 2011—and clearly the world is a much poorer place because of it.

It goes without saying—Jamarion is definitely NOT getting the interview either.

And which names are the most popular in the U.S., once again (seemingly year after year)? Jacob and Sophia.

Yes, they would both get the interview—as they stood in line with the 55 other Jacobs and Sophias up for the same job.

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1. Baby Names In the 1940 Census: Turns Out My Grandparents Were Trendy
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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

30 Comments

  1. Neveah is Heaven backwards and I was first introduced to it about 8 years ago and was kinda like, um that’s cute I guess. My 4 children all have names that have meaning and are pretty much family names..But to each it’s own.. My oldest is actually 16 today, Malcolm is his name and I remember when he was little and I was at the Metro (student at Howard) and an older Black woman saw him (I was carrying him in a bjorn type carrier) she asked me his name. I told her and she said she was so happy he had a decent name, she was sick of hearing all those crazy names our folks were giving their children. I never actually thought of it that way, all the names I considered for all 4 of my children had special historical or familial meaning, no made up names combining me and their Dad’s name (although my hubby and our son Dusty do have an absolutely made up middle name combining his Great Grands and his Grandmother’s names)
    But I digress and am assured that Malcolm, Dusty, Olivia and Charlotte will get the interview!

    • Ohhhh. Thanks for the clarification. I didn’t realize we were spelling stuff backwards now. Wow, the possibilities are endless. Opens up a whole new world in baby naming.

  2. People name their kid Nevaeh because its Heaven spelled backwards. I don’t know why that’s a good choice, but that’s what I’ve been told about the name.

  3. I know a few Nevaehs. What’s funny is when people spell it NevEAh, because it is no longer heaven spelled backwards at that point. I just think super common trendy names are annoying, in general. I’m a Jessica born in the early eighties. There has been several other Jessicas in every class/job I’ve ever had. :(

  4. ….it is my thought that anyone who would disregard a person because of their name may not be a company I want my children working with. I have 3 children…a Nia (purpose), and Imani (faith) and a Ahmad (worthy of praise). It is my prayer that companies like that would avoid putting my children thru the pain of being stuck in job that really would rather have someone else. I don’t think they will lose but gain a place of employment that may ideally be better suited anyway…my two cents!

  5. My name is Joo-lee-tuh or “Julie with a tuh” (which people seem to remember better). It sucks being named Julita because no one ever remembers it or pronounces it correctly. So I was determined to do better by my children, Jaryn (rhymes with Karen), Jaelyn (which I hate and her father’s choice, is ridiculously popular in the hood for some reason) and Joy (short and sweet). i only worry about Jaelyn’s being interview worthy but I cringe at names of other children like her female classmate, Radical.

  6. Having such a common name (#1 female name the year I was born), I was always irritated in school and at work because I was often called by my last name, which people often mispronounce and then turn into a joke. My older daughter’s name is Banessa Xochilth. Her first name is a misspelling of Vanessa by her dad that we happened to like (B and V are interchangeable in sound in Mexico where he is from) and Xochilth is a name that originated from the Aztec empire, which is where he’s from (the state name is Tlaxcala). My younger daughter’s name is Jaylee Giselle. I have only heard of one other Jaylee so far but there are a ton of names similar (Kaylee, Maylee, ect) and I just liked the classic-yet-not-overused middle name…and the fact that we finally agreed on a middle name. If we ever have another girl then her name will be Xenia Annaliese and if we ever have a boy his name will be Luka Zaden. I don’t necessarily think an uncommon name will mean the child will not get an interview in the future. The names that are random fruits and such probably won’t, but I don’t see anything wrong with a name that just happens to be different.

  7. As a former public address announcer for girls basketball games, I can assure you that it takes practice and dedication (and more than a few public screwups) to pronounce correctly some of these unique names. But before each game, I would approach the opposing coach and ask for the correct pronunciation of each player’s name. Nothing worse than mispronouncing a name over the PA system.

    Then came this name: Morenike Atunrase. At first glance, all I could think of was More Nike. The coach looked at me as if I was a dunce and said, “No, it’s Moh-ra-NEEK-Ay Ah-TOON-rah-SAY.”

    Glad I was corrected because Morenike was a superstar. She scored repeatedly in the game, which was bad for the home team but great for me as announcer because I got to broadcast her name repeatedly, being sure to stretch out the last name Ah-TOOOOOON-rah-SAAAAAY in true NBA announcer form.

    And I wasn’t alone in appreciation of her name. Morenike went on to become a superstar at Texas A&M University, then played for the San Antonio Silver Stars of the WNBA.

    Morenike, I’m not sure you would’ve gotten the interview, but public address announcers everywhere thank your parents for giving you that name.

    • Love it!

      Btw as a young adult I did deal with the fear that a LaQueshia would not get call backs. Perhaps that’s why I endeavored, so hard, to form solid relationships as I met professionals and mentors.

  8. With my kids, I really wanted to have names that were common enough to be familiar while still being unusual… so if they fell somewhere around 800-900 on the Social Security website, I was happy. My older son is “Marcel”. I LOVE his name because it is technically German/French (My husband’s great-grandfather was the inspiration) but I have met people from multiple cultures/racial backgrounds with the name. I have yet to decide if we did such a good job with our 7 month old, Zander. I had never heard it but liked that it was pronounceable and the meaning. But, I’m seeing that there are a lot of White Zander’s out there now and my son is Black so I’m hoping I didn’t give him a name that is too White!

  9. I think this is an issue that goes far deeper than the name. I wonder, if a company would be so quick to throw an application in the trash because the name were black, would that same company be likely to hire someone that they saw was black when they came in for the interview?

    Since the getting the interview is only step one in the process, I would be much more curious to know what happens to black candidates at those companies that manage to make it beyond the initial screening process because of their more racially ambiguous names. How often are they then hired at that stage verses their white counterparts?

    The reality is that while we may be able to “hide” behind a name on a resume, at some point, our blackness will be revealed, and if the assumption is that black=unqualified, that would be true in any stage of the game.

    • This is my sentiment. If a company is discriminatory in the initial phases of their interview, then the likelihood is that they will be discriminatory later on down the line. I would not lose any sleep over getting looked over at a company like that. My name is “unique” by American standards but I have always received a callback on my resume. I don’t even think about the companies that have rejected me.

  10. Yes, I know one child named Nevaeh. Another name rising in the “backwards” trend is Semaj (James backwards). I have heard of at least 3. The job interview thing is interesting. I mentored teen girls in foster care, and one of them, Sharday, (yes, her mother was a fan of the singer Sade) became pregnant at 15 with a boy. She came to me earnestly and asked if she should name her son the name she loved –J’Vante Cordell, or did I think he would never get a job, and people would think his mama was ignorant? I appreciated her consciousness about it all. I told her that her son was a gift, no matter how other people saw him, and that the love and care she gave him were more important than what she called him. That said, I told her I preferred the name his father wanted to give him: Terrence Patrick

  11. Education will supercede a government name everyday of the week. Ensure that your child’s education is stellar and the interviewer will not care about a name on a birth certificate.

  12. As former HR,I can say that I have witnessed the trashing of resumes and applications solely on the applicants name. If they can’t pronounce it, some don’t even bother with it..They figure they will get another applicant. Some may not like it, but it happens. I am personally one of the folks who cringes every time I hear a name that I have coined “two many vowels and not enough consonants” or vice versa. I think parents should consider a variety of factors when choosing a child name,including getting a job. I have a Blake and a Chase. Simple and to the point,no playground shananigans,no nicknames,no misspelling or mispronouncing, my 3 yr old can already spell his whole name at 2. I have relatives that have all kinds of names I can’t spell or pronounce and I always ask them why..There answer is always,”because I like it”,with no regard that its the child that has to wear that for the rest of his/her life. I am told by the same family members,I gave my children “white names”. Craziness..

  13. My son’s name is JahCai – it means King of Cairo my daughter Aminah. Yes they have “ethnic” names but my children are also being brought up to know their meaning and purpose. My niece is Neveah Angel, but she knows why her name is Neveah. I am named after my grandfather Ulysses. When coming up with my children’s names, i thought of only the strength in the name not whether my child would be classed by it. Can’t judge, just laugh at the ignorance of some and thought less actions of many.

  14. You wouldn’t even believe – not soccer – but my son played t-ball with a Neveah. She was ‘Nev’ for short. We are in NC a military community but I know her parents were from Texas. We picked the name Christopher which at the time I said, couldn’t be more ordinary unless our last name was Smith. It was an “I’m in labor” compromise. But the name suites him perfectly. Now what works a nerve is when its not pronounced correctly as in, “Christafa”. Being from the South, I know my name Kenya on the resume hasn’t made it past the pre-screener.

  15. Safiya'smommy

    Love this post….very insightful…..imagine how we feel when we grow older, having had no say in our naming process…..

    My father went through a faze in his life…..hence I am Jamilah, my sister Jahzreel, brother Adonijah and other sister Sharazade……

    I found delight when I became acquainted with persons of the Muslim and Arabic faith, as my name means “beautiful”. Always thought I was unique, and was glad I was blessed with a name, that was also a conversation starter.

    Our journey determines our ablilty, our experience our growth, and only the ignorant remain ignorant….love Aja’ post, because can you imagine a almost clear skin almost can pass for white lady walking into an interview, when having looked at my resume “they” “assumed” a muslim female would walk in with her head covered.

    *deerinheadlightreaction* PRICELESS!

  16. I worked in HR for many years and I can tell you that names do play a role in weeding out resumes – I’ve seen it happen. Personally, I look past it because I don’t believe a name you had no choice in taking should define you. That said, as an adult, I received many comments on my name – Tanya Duprey. Comments like, that’s such a strong name, or, your name leaves an impression, but the comment that has stayed with me is, you don’t look like a Tanya Duprey.  I’m Hispanic but my first name is Russian and my last name is French; and to be honest, it’s one of the few gifts my parents gave me – a respectable, strong name. I can tell you definitively that on my name alone is how I scored the interview and at the interview it was my substance that got me the job. 

    My children were named after family members but we were very conscious of choosing a “respectable” name for our girls – Allison and Juliana. However, my husband’s last name is Matos and we worried that a Spanish-sounding name would limit them. My own mother-in-law tried to convince me to give them my last name so they wouldn’t be pigeon-holed. In the end we gave them their father’s last name. We decided that if Justice Sonia Sotomayor could make it so far with an “ethnic name” so could our girls. At some point the country has to embrace its diversity as a source of power not shame. 

  17. There was a study done in 2004 I think where they presented the same EXACT resume to people with different names and people were rejected with the more ethnic sounding names. That’s disgusting. My name is pretty ethnic and I’m not sure if I was passed up for any jobs but I do know I’ve gotten some pretty good ones. All the same – my daughter as a race neutral and sex neutral name also chosen because it is a “family” name. If you saw her resume you would absolutely expect to see a white male. Unintended circumstance but all the same – I may have opened doors for her.

  18. My husband and I purposely chose names for our girls that will ensure they get the interview; between that and the fact that they are family names (Sydney Renee & Gail Cherisse) they don’t have any issues pronouncing or spelling their names. Now I’m a different story! My full name is Skyelynne (which I have a love hate relationship with) and I have no idea where my parents came up with this (or what they might have been somking in 1974). I just go by Skye to avoid confusion and mispelling of my name, but I have never had a problem getting the interview or the job I wanted because of my name. But it is funny to go in the interview and clearly they are expecting a white woman and they get me, a woman of color.

  19. As a kid, I thought my name, RoNeisha, was bad. As reporter, I often cover school issues, and some of the names I come across are just criminal! “Exquatteeshia,” “S’DavLloyd” and twin boys, “Ah’cha’velli” and “Ah’kafushi.” I asked the mom about the twins names, and she said she just liked them. Really?

  20. I named my daughter Zaria one because I believe it is a beautiful name and two I felt that it would be a name that would grow with her gracefully. I never thought about an interview name but, in the long scheme of things I guess I was unconsciously. She has received so many compliments on her name and that makes her very special when she is told that.

  21. It never occurred to me to think about getting a job when I named my 2 daughters (I mean, eventually we’ll get “callbacks” through apps…where we can just be assigned a number, time and date of interview are delivered and this issue need never come up).

    I always looked names as being the one thing we get to define. When someone asks what your name means, you say “Me.” But it’s good to have something to strive for, which is my job…as a parent, giving my babies something to strive for. So you must balance picking names unique enough to be their own, yet meaningful enough to give them purpose.

    My first daughter is named: NovaDao Leela (“New Star” Dao = star (Thai); Leela = is the first part of her mother’s incredibly long Thai name)

    My second daughter is named: Aura de Utopia (“light of heaven”)

    I guess I may have lucked out on the who “interview” business. Worse comes to worse, Nova and Aura both seem pretty interview worthy.

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