A few weeks ago, a little-known company called Mantality Health found itself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Mantality is a healthcare provider that treats men with low testosterone. As all companies that experience growth (or excessive turnover) are wont to do, Mantality places open positions on job boards with the aim of attracting qualified candidates to fill those positions. The Missouri based arm of the company found itself embroiled in a social media spuitpoep (Afrikaans for ‘explosive diarrhea’, and now one of my favorite words) when certain candidates had their applications denied on the grounds that their names were too “ghetto”. Hermeisha Robinson and Dorneshia Zachery are just two of several women who have publicly come forward to address Mantality’s discriminatory recruitment practice. For its part, the company claims that their system was hacked by a disgruntled former employee. CEO Kevin Meuret said, “This is not a reflection of who we are as a company. This is deplorable.”
However as a former recruiter and HR rep, I can confirm that there is unconscious bias against candidates with ‘unconventional’ names in the world of hiring. There are numerous studies that bear out what I have witnessed first hand. In the early 2000s, I worked at a boutique recruiting firm where we sifted through hundreds of resumes a day. I found an exceptionally good candidate for a job we’d been trying to fill for months, and upon submitting the job seekers name to my team lead, I was told to call the candidate back and ask if “he had a middle name we could submit to the hiring manager”. I’ll spell it out for you if it is not painfully obvious: The candidate’s name was too hood, but chances are, his momma had good enough sense to throw a ‘Chris’ or ‘John’ somewhere in there on his birth certificate to compensate for moments just like this.
For my generation, ensuring that our children have the best chance at success has always meant eschewing certain liberties that our parents took with naming. As Ms. Hermeisha Robinson explained, her name was given to honor her father Herman who died when she was very young. As much as we African/African-Americans who were born in the 70s and late 80’s would like to, it has been drilled into us that naming offspring with any monikers that appear ‘fringe’ is to relegate their life experiences and potential for upward mobility to a predetermined point. We therefore have been conditioned (and not unconsciously so) to give our children what are popularly known in our communities as “resume ready” names. These names are harmless, roll easily off the white tongue and best of all, give no indication of what background the bearer comes from. In short, they lack seasoning.
Resume ready names are not just a Black American tool for survival. In Ghana for instance, giving a child a ‘Christian’ name ensured that that child would have access to better job opportunities than one without. One’s African name (i.e. Kojo, Esi, etc) was demoted to a ‘house name’, while one’s Christian/English designation would be what you would use professionally. In recent times – and thankfully so – there has been a shift away from that thinking. This is not more evident than in South Africa.
The still shot of Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying Hector Pieterson’s lifeless body is one of the most iconic images in history. My family visited the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum in Johannesburg to learn about the resistance to and affects of apartheid. There were many unknowns that shocked me personally, but one fact about this young man’s life that surprised me the most was that the name that is known the world over was not his real name at all. The Population Registration Act No. 30 of 1950. This Act divided the South African population into three main racial groups: Whites, Natives (Blacks), Indians and Coloured people (people of mixed race). Seizing an opportunity to better his family’s fortunes, Pieterson’s father changed their African name and adopted an Afrikaans sounding moniker instead. This allowed the family to pass as Coloured, with the hopes that it would give his children access to better education and job opportunities afforded Blacks, who were often relegated to menial jobs like gardening, street sweeping or mining. Racial tensions and resentment between Coloureds and Blacks are still present today, though more than a few of them (unknowingly) share a common heritage.
South Africa’s ANC government is working to change some of the wrongs of the past by giving historically disenfranchised Blacks an opportunity to occupy positions, utilities and privileges that were previously out of their reach. Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) is a strategy that has been introduced by the government, the aim of which is to reduce country’s racially based inequalities. This is to be done in three main ways:
- Direct empowerment through ownership and control of enterprises and assets;
- Human resource development and employment equity;
- Indirect empowerment through preferential procurement policies aimed at ensuring black people benefit from government tenders.
It is basically South Africa’s version of Affirmative Action.
Like Affirmative Action, B-BBEE has its critics and detractors, all giving the same reasons as to why the program will fail as what was heard in the 90s. What is interesting and unique about B-BBEE is that it has forced conversations about race – Blackness, particularly – that were never had in the US. Now that there is a real, not just perceived, benefit to being “Black” in Africa, there are white and blue-collar workers all over the country scrambling to change their identity to align themselves with African-ness. I never thought I’d live to see this day.
A friend who took me around her office in the city invited me to lunch. The vestiges of apartheid were still very much apparent in the construction of her office block. She showed me where Black workers were allowed to sit and eat, and how Black men had no business being in parts of the grounds unless they were there to clean.
“It was forbidden,” she said. She’s now head of their marketing department. “Come on. I want to introduce you to my team. She rattled of their names – all Xhosa sounding save one: Anaishe*. It didn’t sound South African.
“Ah! You have a good ear,” she laughed. “That’s my special co-worker. You’ll see why.”
I shook hands eagerly with each member of her team, excited to be around so many professionals of color. In Plettenberg Bay, there are no Black people in management. It’s still a town stuck in the 60s with an attitude to match. When I got to Anaishe’s desk, I froze. A redheaded white woman (the ONLY white woman in the department) with freckles offered me an easy smile, obviously accustomed to the shocked look I initiated my greeting with. Later on my friend explained that Anaishe was a White Zimbabwean and that this was the name she filled out on her application. The speculation was that she Africanized her name with the aim of getting into the department on B-BBEE rules and by the time she was hired it was too late.
“She is qualified, after all, and that would be discrimination to terminate her based on the color of her skin.”
I know. Pick your jaw up off the floor. This is the New Africa.
Back in Plett, I’ve had similar conversations with my acquaintances in retail spaces, mostly Coloured girls who man the tills and work shop floors. Their search for employment within local government has been met with an unanticipated roadblock.
“Most of the positions are going to Africans,” explained Chantelle*. “Xhosas and things. I also do have Xhosa in my family. My grandmother was Xhosa and she gave me an African name.”
She struggles to pronounce it.
“That’s the name I’m going to use to apply when I go back to the municipality. I want to get out of retail and try something new, but… At least I have some Black in me! I have a better chance.” She’s optimistic.
Her co-worker, a woman three shades darker than her looks crestfallen. I asked her why she looks so sad.
“I don’t have an African name and I also only speak Afrikaans and English.” She tries to laugh it off, but her unspoken anxiety about her limited prospects is apparent.
It is a bizarre twist, but this is the legacy of a country that has had a troubling and bizarre relationship with the construct of race. And while it is easy to look at these dynamics and declare “reverse racism”, it’s something deeper than that. There’s a real opportunity here. Perhaps now, amidst the chaos, South Africans will be free to have real conversations about racial and ethnic identity, self-identification and what it means to be African in this new century; something that was denied to them by previous governments.