Implicit Bias – What’s in a Name?

This year our “Family of Schools” leaders are reading Deep Diversity, by @Shakilwrites

On page 4, I was struck by Choudhury’s story of receiving a business card for a local optometrist, with a name that evoked images that led him to hesitate to call for an appointment.

I realized that I had made conscious decisions throughout my life, based upon my experiences of this unstated manifestation of prejudice.

I am a cis, white, middle-aged woman, who was born in Canada and whose first language is English.  But I have not always been known as Terry Whitmell.

  1. My parents named me “Terry”, registered my birth as “Theresa Elizabeth”, and thereby satisfied family expectations that I had a saint’s name as a middle name, that I had a version of the Hungarian name “TERÉZIA”, and that my name was easy to pronounce.  My father’s name had been initially registered as Lajos, but changed during the second world war to Louis, due to a wish to appear more “Anglo”.
  2. My surname at birth was Tusz.  This is a name that rhymes only with somewhat rude words:  goose, loose, noose, caboose, moose, etc.  And, it is easy to mispronounce as toots, tuzz, tuss, etc.  To add to this, it means “hostage” in Hungarian!
  3. When we moved between grade 1 and grade 2, I chose to have my parents register me at school as “Theresa”, since I was getting tired of being told “you have a boy’s name” and “you should spell your name with an “i” not a “y”.
  4. When we moved between grade 7 and grade 8, I chose to have my parents register me at school as “Terry”, since it was “way cooler” and lacked the “Mother Teresa” connotations.
  5. When I married, I was determined to keep my maiden surname, but was marrying a man who felt strongly that a family should have one name.  We were open to “Tusz-Whitmell” or “Whitmell-Tusz”, but the pronunciation issues and the challenges they would present to our future children resulted in my changing my name to Theresa (Terry) Elizabeth Tusz Whitmell, and he retained his birth name.

Why did my name matter to me?  Why did it matter to those who read my name in print?  Why did it matter to those I met?

  1. Our names anchor our memories.  I am a different person as Terry Tusz, as Theresa Tusz, as Theresa Whitmell, and as Terry Whitmell.  Different groups know me as each of these, and some of the names are tied to a location or period of time in my life.
  2. In print, I am gender-neutral.  This is a HUGE advantage as a woman, to have gender off the table.  To those who only know me via email, I can be anyone.  And usually they assume “male”.  The years that I spent as a computer technology coordinator in our school board were made much easier by this initial assumption.
  3. It is so much easier to have a name that people can pronounce, and which they can remember accurately.  I still receive emails addressed to “Terri” or “Terrie”, but I assume that this is not a personal slight.  However, my name is almost always pronounced correctly when I am introduced, and that eases the following conversation.

My experiences make me acutely sensitive when meeting people for the first time.  I take great pains to pronounce names correctly, and to ask for spelling so that I can find them in social media, and use their name correctly when sharing our conversation with others.

I often meet students who say “oh, it doesn’t matter” or “however you say it is OK”, and I press them to help me pronounce and spell their names correctly.  I am still working on how to learn more about the origins of names, without making them feel uncomfortable.

Our Student Information System allows us to record both legal name, and “preferred” name.  When I encounter a preferred name that is obviously an Anglicization of the student’s real name, I will often engage them in conversation, and discuss if this is who they see themselves as, or if it has been a convenience imposed by their parents or chosen by themselves.  We allow our students to change their preferred name as requested, and it’s interesting to see how some of them will move through several identities during their four years with us.

Milennials now present themselves to the world as more than just a name: we see selfies, YouTube videos, and blogs that present a richer personal image than my name did decades ago. I just hope, for my students, that these media artifacts are an asset, not an invitation to prejudice for those who meet them.

I am still struggling with my unconscious bias towards the familiar, are you?

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