It all started with such a simple question. “What are the rules parents follow when they pick a name for their child,” I asked a sea of students with my hands on my hips at the front of the movie theater I teach my Soc 101 class in. “Start by writing down your thoughts and in a moment we’ll share them with each other.” When most of the class was pens down, I asked them to discuss in pairs the rules they’d written down.
“Okay, so tell me what you think parents think about when naming their kiddos.” Hands snapped into the air. I pointed at a young woman with curly brown hair and nodded to give her the floor. “I think parents want names that sound employable.” My eyebrows raised and my jaw dropped and in a I’m-playing-dumb-voice I asked, “what ever do you mean?” Students laughed. Students writhed in their seats. “Some names are more employable than others? If that’s true, then give me some examples of ‘employable sounding names’,” I said using air quotes. A choir of voices shot out answers rapid fire.
Hands in the air I cut them off, “Hold on a second. I’m seeing a couple of trends in this list. First, not a darn one of them is a traditionally female name. You know women work too, right?” They laugh seeing the smile on my face. “But what else do all of these names have in common?” Before I could even finish the question, a young man near the front row shouted, “They’re white people names!”
“So if employable names all sound like ‘white people names’, then what does this tell us? Put another way, a conflict theorist would ask ‘who benefits from this’, so tell me who benefits from this?” From here you can teach students just about any sociological concept you want: social privilege, internalized racism, the dominant culture, symbolic violence, non-material culture, patriarchy, the glass ceiling/escalator, symbolic interaction, how personal decisions are affected by social forces, labeling theory, institutional discrimination, hegemony, and on and on. It’s a swiss army knife of an activity.
Instead of asking my students this simple question, I could have shown them the research on name discrimination in hiring by Bertrand and Mullainthan (2004). I could have told them that this was a real issue, but instead they told me it was issue. The list of names they generated revealed to them something about themselves that they might have been unaware of. I could have told them that, as we all do, they personally struggled with racism and sexism, but instead their actions confessed this publicly.
In English 101 the saying is “show, don’t tell,” and in Pedagogy 101 the saying is, “the one doing the work is the one doing the learning.” This activity works on both levels.
Bertrand, Marianne and Sendhil Mullainthan. 2004. “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination” The American Economic Review 94(4):991–1013.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s vital that they do learn about the empirical research that’s been done, but I don’t think you want to lead with that. Make them want to know more about name discrimination, then show them the research. ↩