We all have a name – in fact, you read mine before clicking on my blog post, and an image of who I am almost certainly (and automatically) was generated in your mind. Based on my name, you had probably already assigned me a gender, age, race, ethnicity, and potentially even guessed at my education level and income. You likely predicted a few things right, but you also may have guessed some things wrong. Although these quick assumptions are useful in our busy lives, they can also be misleading and harmful. This is because the clues that a name gives us are based on general patterns, not absolutes (Anderson et al., 2022). Creating strict categories in our minds, including those for names, simplifies many aspects of our lives but can also perpetuate *stereotypes and *discrimination.
The process described above, where you automatically pictured who I was from my name, is a normal process that our mind’s go through when we hear a name. This is because our names are closely tied to who we are, including which social categories we belong to (examples: gender, age, ethnicity, race, education, and income). However, when we start associating names with social categories, in particular those related to race and ethnicity, we can run into trouble. If a landlord receives a stack of applications from people who want to live in their apartment complex, they are going to start inferring who the applicants are based on the names at the top. Without even reading the next lines, they have assigned social categories to each name.
Names and Housing Discrimination
We know that this phenomenon exists thanks to a method called a *matched-guise study. This kind of study allows researchers to determine people’s attitudes towards different social groups in a covert way – that is, without the participants having to directly state their beliefs. To do this, researchers choose a *stimulus, which in this case, would be a tenant application. Landlords are presented with identical applications, with the only change being the *guise. The guise is the factor we think will influence how people respond to the stimulus and therefore reveal their attitudes and beliefs. Since we want to know about the landlord’s judgements regarding names, the guise in this study would be the name at the top of the application. If there is a difference in which applications the landlords are choosing, it must be based on the name on the application. Social science research has confirmed that landlords do make guesses about people’s identities based on their names (Oreopoulous, 2011).
Unfortunately, these guesses are used to discriminate against certain groups of people. Researchers named Hogan and Berry performed an experiment similar to the one described above. They found that Black and Arabic named applications faced barriers that White and Jewish named applicants did not. Those with Black and Arabic names faced discrimination including not getting responses from landlords and facing additional rental conditions (Hogan & Berry, 2011).
Why Does This Matter?
So, what can you take away from this blog post, and how does it apply to your life? I think that although language discrimination can seem like big, scary mountain that is impossible to overcome, it is important that we make small change. If everyone who reads this blog post walks away today with a more inclusive mindset, we have already chipped away at that mountain. The next time you hear a name for the first time, I want you to stop and question that automatic image that pops into your head. Although it is an assumption, it is not certain. We cannot make accurate judgements about people simply based on their names. Although it may sound cliché, the concept of not judging a book by it’s cover is useful here. Our names do say a lot about us, but they certainly do not tell us the whole story.
*Stereotype – the automatic characteristics that society attributes to a specific group. Stereotypes are widely held (i.e., believed by most people) and can be harmful.
*Discrimination – unfair treatment of certain groups of people based on social differences such as gender, ethnicity, or race. Stereotypes can be used as a basis for discrimination.
*Matched-guise study – a study where language attitudes and beliefs are indirectly/covertly revealed.
*Stimulus – The object of the study which is presented to the participants. In a matched-guise study, the stimulus (e.g., tenant application) is held constant.
*Guise – The guise is the factor we think will influence how people respond to the stimulus and therefore reveal their attitudes and beliefs. In the experiment above, the guise was the name on the tenant application.
Anderson, C., Bjorkman, B., Denis, D., Doner, J., Grant, M., Sanders, N., & Taniguchi, Ai (2022). Language, Power, and Privilege. Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd Edition, (pp. 45- 49). eCampusOntario.
Hogan, B., & Berry, B. (2011). Racial and Ethnic Biases in Rental Housing: An Audit Study of Online Apartment Listings. City & Community, 10(4), 351–372.
Oreopoulous, P (2011). Why Do Skilled Immigrants Struggle in the Labor Market? A Field Experiment with Thirteen Thousand Resumes. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 3(4), 148-171.