On…Names

This recent video featuring Katie Hopkins has gone viral and inspired outrage amongst those shocked by comments such as “A name, for me, is a short way of working out what class that child comes from. [And I can decide from that] do I want my child to play with them?”. The Independent’s poll has 91% of people disagreed with Hopkins and would not judge a child by their name. But I can’t help but wonder, is that actually true? Are we actually living in a society where 91% of people don’t make frivolous judgments over factors that an individual can’t help? I have to say, given the world we grow up in, I think that’s unlikely. I’m sure 91% of people will say that, but do they actually act like that? Now this isn’t a blog post sympathising with Katie Hopkins’ views: I still find them repugnant, atrocious and elitist. By no means am I endorsing Hopkins’ view that we should actively make our decisions about who our children’s friends are and who they can hang out with based on names – I think these are appalling things to do! But what Hopkins’ does is explicitly express what, I believe, a lot of people implicitly or subconsciously do. That is a significant difference, and I’m not saying that all people are as bad as Hopkins. What this blog post is going to be about is a missed opportunity by the media to discuss our implicit prejudices, including our prejudices about names, and the fact that a name can signal quite a bit about a person.

A few weeks ago, I was told about my new manager/team leader who would start work soon and was taking over a project from my previous manager who was leaving. He had a distinctively Italian sounding name. My colleague and I joked that he was probably appointed the new manager because previously, all the staff were young females and they probably wanted some tall attractive Italian guy to ogle at work. Of course, I was being facetious and I didn’t actually believe that. But based off a name, I made a quick judgement about what the person could potentially look like and to some extent, why he might have been hired. When I actually met him for the first time, he wasn’t Italian and he wasn’t tall (attractiveness is debateable). My colleague went as far as to say he looked like a toad. Of course, this didn’t mean that I treated him any differently. In fact, I really enjoyed his company and found him to be one of the better, friendlier and more competent members of the management team. But here’s a casual example of how I judged someone by their name before I met them. It’s also an example of how wrong my judgement was. It’s an example of how I didn’t act upon those judgements, unlike Katie Hopkins, but I still made them anyway.

A stereotypical Italian man

A stereotypical Italian man – Gilles Marini

Another member of the team I work for was returning from maternity leave. Her surname is Asian-sounding and when she introduced herself, the first thing she mentioned was how she thought we probably all expected her to be Asian, when she’s actually Caucasian. She explained that her husband is Korean thus the root of her name. I use this example because we talk about this kind of thing all the time, often very casually, and we don’t really take issue with it. Even if we don’t talk about, we probably do think it when we see or hear a name. Should I have spoken up to my new manager and said, “Actually I didn’t think you were Asian because I don’t judge people by their names, how dare you presume that of me, I’m not a judgemental asshole!”? No, clearly that would be unreasonable. Yet that does seem to be similar to responses people have had at the Katie Hopkin’s video. What I think polls like the Independent’s show is that sure, if you ask people if they make judgements, they’re going to lie and say of course they don’t, because making judgements doesn’t fit into people’s idea of what it means to be a good person. But do they, in reality, make judgements all the time? Yeah, probably.

I think people are just focusing on the wrong bit of this Hopkins fiasco. What we find appalling is what Hopkins does with the judgements she makes, not the fact that she makes them at all. We find it horrible that she actively intervenes in her children’s lives and tells them what friends they can have and whose houses they can visit and who they should learn from etc. all based on names. But what I don’t think is quite so controversial is the fact that she makes those judgements, because to be honest, names can tell a lot.

The people behind Freakonomics discuss whether names can affect one’s outcome in life. That’s controversial (“Does being called Loser make you more or less likely to succeed?”) but what they can agree on, is that names are indicative of things like the ethnicity of your parents and the socio-economic circumstances in which you were born. For example, in the US, distinctively black names like Shanice or DeShawn, are much more prevalent in communities of lower socio-economic standing. So the likelihood is, if you meet someone named Tyrone, they’re probably black, and they’re probably from what in the UK we would call a working class background. So when Katie Hopkins says she judges a child’s name to establish what class they might be from, is she so far off the mark?

names

Similarly, in the other direction, more liberal mothers seem to choose names which are obscure cultural references such as Emerson or Archimedes, and the more educated someone is, the more likely they are to choose obscure, unique or unusual names. We can kind of tell this from common sense as well. When we meet someone called Flower, don’t we immediately think her parents were probably hippies? Or if we meet someone called Renesmee, we might make a judgement based on the fact that her parents were fans of the Twilight series. Recently, the name Khaleesi (from A Song of Ice and Fire or the TV show, Game of Thrones) has become common, indicating that fans of the book/TV series are naming their kids after that as a reference.

Of course, these are all related to more about judgements on one’s parents rather than an individual themselves. We can all agree that judging a child by the name their parents bestowed on them and deeming them more likely to be disruptive or stupid, is harsh and unwarranted. But here’s the thing: when we make those judgements, as we quite often do, they can bring up implicit biases that we have.

What do I mean by implicit bias? Well, I’m no psychologist, but psychologists have been measuring people’s implicit associations for the last few decades. The idea behind this is that implicit associations (i.e. associations we don’t have conscious access to) can affect our attitudes and behaviour. The test involves pairing certain types of words with certain other things, and measuring the speed at which participants can pair different categories together. So understandably, participants were quicker to pair positive words with images of flowers and negative words with images of rotten food, indicating they associated flowers more with positive words and rotten stuff more with negative ones. What’s interesting though is when the test gets participants to pair up positive and negative words with images of different ethnicities. What the test seems to show is that people’s stated preferences (e.g. they’re not racist or biased against ethnic minorities) contradicts what is shown in the test. People were much slower to pair positive words with images of black people, than pairing positive words with images of white people. What I learnt this week though, was that this was even the case when testing Chinese and Japanese people regarding their associations with North and South Koreans, who are ethnically homogenous. Chinese people were more positively disposed to North Koreans and therefore were able to more quickly pair positive words with North Korean faces. The same happened for Japanese people but reversed for South Koreans. Now, there’s no ethnic difference between Koreans but there are different cultural perceptions of these groups, particularly in China and Japan. These studies seem to indicate that we have implicit associations (a lot of which are due to cultural and environmental influences) and these might have an effect on our attitudes and behaviour.

names2

So what relevance does this have regarding our attitude to names? Well, I think if we do make these judgements about names, even if only implicitly, that can affect our attitudes. In fact, studies show this definitely seems to be the case.  For example, you are 50% more likely to be called for an interview if you have a white-sounding name on your resume than a black one. Now are all those employers consciously judging someone by their name like Katie Hopkins does? I mean, I’m sure if you ask employers these days, “Are you more likely to hire a white person than a black person?” or “Are you racist?”, they’re going to answer in the negative. It seems likely though that even if only to a small extent, their decision making is influenced by those implicit biases. The thing is, those small implicit prejudices can add up when we examine society as a whole.

In conclusion then, I think the Katie Hopkins scandal has diverted our attention away from discussing some rather interesting and pertinent societal issues. Her presentation of her views was absolutely awful, and the things she said were really shocking. But rather than reacting in a knee-jerk way and saying “Of course I’m not like Katie Hopkins, I don’t judge people by their names, what a horrible thing to say!”, we should engage a bit more critically in the issues that surround the idea of names. I hope this blog post has given a quick overview of some of the issues that come about naming and judgements. A lot of what I’ve said though is controversial, and a lot of the studies I’ve cited are very interpretative and debateable. So I’m not saying my case is watertight here. But what I do think is that people do make judgements all the time, especially about trivial things like what a person’s wearing or what colour their hair is or how tall they are. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to go further and say that people do make judgements on someone’s name. I’ll even go as far as to say that maybe, in some cases, those judgements will influence your behaviour and attitudes. I’m not saying everyone acts upon these judgements, but I do believe that the majority of people do at least, have these judgements and a certain percentage of those people will act upon those judgements, even if only subconsciously.

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3 thoughts on “On…Names

  1. I honestly couldn’t agree more. I’ve been mystified why the entire media response has been “Look how terrible/stupid Hopkins is” rather than “how representative are Katie Hopkin’s opinions”. Now I think certainly it’s in part because people don’t want to admit they have any of the same follies hence that ridiculously high number of people who claim not to judge by names and that as you said for most people it’s simply an unconscious process.
    I’m sure most people don’t consciously act on their response the way Hopkins does but I’m not buying that people have no response to the extent of say, not expecting someone Asian when told they hear an Asian-sounding name. They might not be making a value judgement in that case necessarily but there is /a/ judgement.
    In the UK even taking ethnicities out people do make class judgements on names and while most of them might not go down the Katie-Hopkins route I’m sure there are plenty of middle-class up mothers who would be disappointed to hear their child’s new best friend is called say, Chantelle (although that name’s possibly a bit too old for the current crop of children, which again is a judgement on a name).

    • Well put. I especially agree with what you said, that in many cases, it might not be a value judgement but it is a judgement nonetheless. The media response to me just seems so desperate to cover up people’s prejudices and I wonder if that actually has a negative impact on addressing these issues. If all the media does is say “But look, 91% of people aren’t bigots!” when in reality, they are, we’ll never be able to tackle the underlying societal issues of prejudice and discrimination. I mean maybe it’s a bit much to ask of This Morning to discuss these hard-hitting issues, but I really wish Holly Willoughby hadn’t just lost her cool and dismissed Hopkins. It’s actually crazy how much the Internet has a boner for Holly Willoughby now over that when really all she did was get angry and shut down an argument that could have been discussed in a lot more detail. Says a lot about people really.

      • I have slightly more sympathy for Willoughby in that in the context of the original conversation and some of the plain idiocy Hopkins shows (“India isn’t a geographic location”…right) it would be easy to lose your cool and just shut the whole topic down and she was right to codemn Hopkin’s actions. That none of the mainstream media felt the need to do anything more than that does, I agree, feel purely like a defensive manoeuvre. “Of course I’m not a bigot” goes the average newspaper reader feeling vindicated that of course Hopkins is just one idiot rather than actually looking at their own responses or those of their friends. I guess the problem is the media sells what people want to hear and no one wants to hear that they might be prejudiced.

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