Young black men change their names to increase chances of being hired

Guardian Web |

In youth centres in cities across the UK, young people are going into the studio and remixing music. But at the Moving on Up project at Hackney Council for Voluntary Services (HCVS), young men searching for a job are remixing their names.

Oluwatosin Adegoke, 23, who graduated this year from Bristol University, was an early adopter of this strategy. He’s been called Peter, the last of his four middle names, since he was a child.

“I think my African parents want it to be easier for me in school,” he says. “But in the past two to three years I’ve had to start thinking about it a bit more. One, it’s instinct; and two, whenever I go by Oluwatosin I have to spell it, and sometimes I get referred to as Oliver – even after I spell it out.”

Adegoke is in precarious work. But many of the other young black men who visit the project are unemployed. They have that in common with more than a quarter of black people aged between 16-24 – the highest of any ethnic group, and more than double the 11% rate for white youths. Black males are understood to be the worst affected, but figures – while apparently collected – were not readily available.

At Moving on Up, which the Guardian visited as part of its Bias in Britain series, they aim to do something about that. “The difference is getting a foot in the door,” says Deji Adeoshun, a youth worker at HCVS, who advises Adegoke and the other young graduates who take part. “I’ve had some guys who have had to change their surname because that was an issue,” he says, describing one in particular who was applying for an IT job.

“Same job: applied with his actual surname and didn’t get a call back, applied with a ‘Christian’ name and got an interview.”

The strategy Adeoshun advocates may seem radical to some, but in the context of a workplace culture that often leaves black men excluded, radical action may be necessary. Prof Binna Kandola, a business psychologist who specialises in racism and sexism, argues that offices are prone to a deep-seated racist culture.“There’s a racial hierarchy,” Kandola says. “It was developed during the course of the slave trade and it’s a hierarchy of human beings. And wherever I looked, whether it was Brazil or North America or Europe – [or] even South Africa where black people are the majority – the hierarchy is always the same.

“It’s white at the top, black at the bottom, and everybody else in between.”

Such prejudices have clear economic consequences. The poverty rate for ethnic minorities is double that of white groups, according to research last year by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which also noted that black and brown workers were concentrated in low-paid sectors. And that’s despite generally higher standards of academic attainment than most white groups.

And it is young black men who suffer the brunt of the exclusion – in particular thanks to specific stereotypes around aggression and fecklessness. “Aggression and violence is the strongest stereotype that research has shown is associated with black men,” Kandola says.

Connor Robinson, from south Croydon, is taller and bigger than your average 18-year-old. Robinson, who is mixed race, has been working with Talent Match Croydon, a local project set up to help disadvantaged young people into work.

“Being brown or being black has been a big affect on my life,” says Robinson. “I think white people are very stereotyping towards me because I’m brown, because they think I’m a rudeboy or a gangster. White people are very quick to judge black and brown people.”

While many black and brown people learn to ignore – or become inured to – such casual racism, for Connor, who is autistic, the experiences continue to trouble him. Racism means Connor is socially isolated from a community which he strongly identifies with through his white mother.

Most confrontational racism went out with the Equalities Acts, hate crimes legislation and black and white TV. As Adeoshun, the youth worker, points out, these days, and particularly in the workplace: “Racism is not overt, it’s subtle.”

While discrimination comes top of a list of barriers that face young black jobseekers, it is commonly expressed through other, related hurdles. One is a lack of self-confidence in an alien environment entirely the preserve of whites.

“A lot of young black men, especially in [Hackney], one of the things that puts them off applying for certain jobs is the that they speak, this sense that you need to be posh or well spoken,” Adeoshun says. “If you have grown up in a household where English is not a first language, then how do you have confidence in your voice?”

Another problem is a lack of role models and social networks to help them into industries. One of the young men at Hackney CVS that day was Lamide Olusegun, 23, who this year received a highjer education diploma in animation from the University of the Creative Arts. Initially, he had hoped for work in a production company. It was not that the doors were shut to him; more that he could not find any doors at all.

“I felt like it’s who you know, it’s not really what’s on your portfolios. Especially in this art field. A lot of jobs are gotten in the bars and it’s just connections,” he says. As a black animator, he has no one to look up to. “I’ve not seen personally any other black animators. Even at uni on my course, I don’t think there was that many black people, maybe just a handful – or even Asians as well, just ethnic people.”

Such barriers mean that by the time young black men find their way into work, they have been forced to severely moderate their ambitions. As a result they – and particularly the subgroup of black African workers – are more likely to be overqualified for their roles. Adeoshun, a law graduate, is a prime example. He passed his bar exams only to find he was unable to secure a pupilage at a chambers.

And for those who stay stuck on the scrapheap, the lure of the black economy is strong. One young man in Croydon speaks of how, in an effort to raise a couple of hundred pounds, he pulled a scam and was convicted of fraud. Now he is blocked from any job in a bank, further limiting his prospects.

What are the solutions? Many companies – including the Guardian – have begun rolling out unconscious bias training for senior managers, in an effort to make them aware of any unexamined prejudices that may be putting them off hiring people from ethnic minority groups.

But in a key report on race in the workplace commissioned by the government and published in February last year, the Conservative peer Ruby McGregor-Smith said this unconscious bias was often anything but. “We need to stop hiding behind the mantle of ‘unconscious bias’,” she declared.

Lady McGregor-Smith said: “I have to question how much of this bias is truly ‘unconscious’ and by terming it ‘unconscious’, how much it allows us to hide behind it. Conscious or unconscious, the end result of bias is racial discrimination, which we cannot and should not accept.”

Kandola, the business psychologist, warns that such a stance risks undermining attempts to eliminate what is a most insidious form of racism. “Not all biases are conscious,” he says. “There are some things that are very blatant that occur in the workplace and they are clearly not unconscious. But there are other things which are far more subtle that happen and people may not be aware they are doing it.

He recommends seeing racial bias as a performance issue at work, feeding back to managers about their biases and telling them how to change them – and disciplining those who fail to respond.

But young black men are not sitting back and waiting for procedures to be put in place and for attitudes to change. Olusegun is among them. Instead of trying to find work with an established production company, he has taken his future into his own hands by starting his own business, merchandising his cartoon characters for sale online and in the market.

“I’ve seen the light in self-employment, it’s helped me build some resilience as well,” he says. “I’ve learned so much of how to run a business, how to brand yourself, how to market yourself. These are things that I had a little idea about, but I’d never had a chance to practice it.

“And I’m seeing results as well, so it’s not looking bleak for me.”

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