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Name based prejudice and discrimination

Name based prejudice and discrimination
Latest posts by Keith Lindner (see all)

Prejudice vs discrimination: what’s the difference?

Prejudice and discrimination are often used interchangeably. They are related but are distinct concepts. Let’s break them down.


This is an attitude or belief about a particular group of people, usually involving negative stereotypes or assumptions. Prejudice is typically based on misconceptions, irrational feelings, or stereotypes about a certain racial, ethnic, age, or other social group. It’s important to note that prejudice is internal and relates to thoughts and attitudes. Prejudice doesn’t necessarily lead to action, but it often paves the way for discriminatory behavior.

For example, if someone believes that people from a particular country are inherently less intelligent, even without any evidence to support this claim, they’re demonstrating prejudice.


While prejudice refers to biased thinking, discrimination is biased action. Discrimination occurs when individuals or groups are treated unfairly or unequally based on their membership in a certain social group. This involves actual behaviors and actions that disadvantage people and can include things like exclusion, rejection, or preferential treatment.

Continuing with the previous example, if that person refuses to hire individuals from the particular country because they believe them to be less intelligent, they’re demonstrating discrimination.

In essence, while prejudice is about “what you think,” discrimination is about “what you do.” 

As we all know, names often indicate someone’s ethnic, cultural, or religious background, and due to preexisting stereotypes and biases, individuals may be treated differently, even unfairly, based solely on their name. This is what is referred to as name-based prejudice and discrimination.

A history inked in prejudice

This type of prejudice and discrimination has been around for centuries. It can occur in various areas, including employment, housing, and education, among others. For example:

  • Employment: There have been multiple studies demonstrating that job applicants with names commonly associated with certain ethnic or cultural groups receive fewer callbacks or job offers, even when qualifications are identical. Notable research by Bertrand and Mullainathan (2004) showed that “white”-sounding names received 50% more callbacks for interviews than those with “Black”-sounding names.
  • Housing: Research has found that individuals with names associated with certain ethnic groups may encounter more obstacles when trying to rent or buy a home. They might receive fewer responses from landlords or real estate agents or might even face overt discrimination.
  • Education: Educators may have lower or different expectations for students based on their names, which can impact academic opportunities and progression. This can result in biased behavior and hinder a student’s academic development.
  • Healthcare: Studies have shown that patients with “ethnic” sounding names may receive different levels of care or have more difficulty accessing healthcare services.

Name-based prejudice and discrimination is a form of systemic bias, often rooted in societal norms that are deeply ingrained in various aspects of society. 

It is critical to continue to address and work towards eliminating these forms of discrimination for a more equitable society. So we’re glad you’re here reading this. 

The science behind the bias

Our brains, these complex, marvelous machines, are programmed to seek out familiarity and associate it with safety. It’s an age-old survival mechanism. When confronted with unfamiliar or negatively associated names, our brains categorize them as ‘foreign’, and we unknowingly ascribe stereotypes to the individuals behind them. 

That’s called unconscious bias, and it’s a beast to tackle.

These biases can be positive or negative and because they are unconscious, we are often unaware of them, which is why active strategies are needed to acknowledge and mitigate their impact on our behaviors and decisions.

Personal and social associations

There are a lot of personal and social associations, both positive and negative, that can impact the way a name is received. And it’s important to clarify that in this context, the associations are what elicit our reaction to a name, not the name itself. 

Many people have personal experiences that lead them to rule out certain names for their children. Think about your partner’s ex husband or girlfriend. 

And then there are social associations we make where we might not personally have had any direct association with that name: 

  • Think “Adolf” and you’ll know what I’m talking about here. That one name has basically been ruined by you know who. 
  • This also extends to newer social media trends where a name all of sudden becomes a meme and the entire world can cohesively change their associations with names like Karen and Chad. 
  • This can also extend to names that have other associations like Colt or Remington (both gun names) who might feel the impact of their name being associated with violence. 

There has actually been research done that analyzed what happens if somebody heard a name they had a negative association with.

They looked at MRIs and saw that people would actually have certain disgust responses towards certain names. So, for anyone thinking of naming their child Adolf, you might want to reconsider. 

People ended up having very visceral, physiological responses because those names have now been normalized to have a negative connotation.

Names have a massive knock-on and residual effect of how others will treat you, not just how they will see you and respond to you verbally, but sometimes even if they do anything physical towards you. 

A person’s name can potentially influence how they look later in life

There has been a bunch of research done recently about how your name might actually impact the way you look

The research was first published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and the researchers suggest that a person’s name, the first social tag unrelated to physical appearance, could potentially influence how they look later in life. 

They argue that each name carries associated characteristics, behaviors, and a “look” within a society, and hypothesize that these stereotypes manifest physically in facial appearance.

  • “It is thought that we might subconsciously alter our appearance as we grow up, for example our hairstyle, to match some cultural idea of what someone with our name looks like.’ 1
  • “We are subject to social structuring from the minute we are born, not only by our gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, but also by the simple choice that others make in giving us our name.” 2

So we’ve gotten to the point of creating a stereotype of what someone should look like based solely on the social expectations associated with their name. This is dangerous and can lead to lasting impacts on people’s well being. 

How else does this impact people?

The repercussions extend beyond housing, healthcare, education and employment. It can have major mental health implications as well.

People feel forced to physically and mentally change themselves to avoid the biases associated with their name. This happens in a number of ways:

  • Name ‘whitening’: People change their names to try to remove the biases. This might mean someone named Mohammed just uses Mo on his resume.
  • Willful mispronunciation: Some people change how they say their name so it’s easier for others. This can cause irreversible harm to others, especially when done to a child. 
  • Physical appearance: People try to assimilate to a cultural expectation of someone with that name even if they don’t feel like it fits them. If someone has a name associated with being a ‘nerd’ they might try harder to not dress like what they would consider a stereotypical nerd.

So what can you do as a soon to be parent?

Well you’re on the right track just by simply reading this article as you’re thinking about choosing a name for your baby

We are living in a far from perfect world. Preconceived notions about racial and ethnic groups can affect people’s actions, often without them even realizing it.

We are making some progress though. As we discussed in our articles on how the internet has changed naming practices around the world, parents are trying to embrace and celebrate more diverse names. The long term effects on this relatively recent trend are yet to play out. But hopefully we can look back on these recent trends as a positive step in the right direction. 

Something else that has changed relatively recently (20-30 years ago) was the creation of anti-bullying and discrimination laws to try and tackle some of these issues. But those laws can struggle to keep pace with some of the more recent and more extreme forms of bullying and discrimination that have been enabled through social media and other technology platforms. More work to be done here. 

So our best advice is to:

  • Educate yourself and others: Understand the potential of a name to cause bias and discrimination. Then spread the word. The more people are aware of this issue, the more we can do to eradicate it.
  • Promote diversity and inclusion: Actively promote a culture of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, school, and community. Encourage dialogue and understanding among different cultures, religions, and ethnicities.
  • Teach your child how to reject, not just accept: If someone rejects you because of your name, there are two responses. You can accept it or reject it. As parents, we can do our best to teach our kids how to reject name discrimination. 

Sources: (1) McGill, (2) SHM

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