Leaving Oklahoma was always my dream. After graduating from the University of Oklahoma in broadcast journalism, I’ve had many friends who went on to bigger and “better” things in the world of broadcast entertainment. I had opted to stay in Oklahoma and found work at News 9. Don’t get me wrong, seeing Gary England and Kelly Ogle everyday was rewarding in itself, but I did have this feeling that I needed to get out and see what the world had in store for me. So that’s exactly what I did last August. I packed up and moved to Minneapolis. During that time I got married and had a baby. Nevertheless, as soon as I moved to the Twin Cities, I was looking for the opportunities to roll in. I was confident! I had done well in school and I had a passion for storytelling. I always believed myself to be a hardworking creative. With all of my credentials and experience, I was positive I would not have a hard time finding my dream job in a bigger city. But, boy was I wrong.
After sending in application after application and not hearing back from even one employer, I had a crisis of confidence.
“Is this really what I’m worth?” I thought miserably. “Not even worth a call back?”
Weeks turned into months. Month after month, I became more desperate. My husband who transferred to the University of Minnesota had us move into student family housing that fall. I was so desperate for work and connections I began to create and edit videos for the housing office free of charge! It was important to me to keep up my resume. It would prove I wanted to work. It was during our stay in student family housing, that I was fortunate enough to meet a couple who would become good family friends.
One day we invited our friends, who are a part of an Asian ethnic group known as Hmongs, Lang* and her husband James*, over for dinner. We sat down and I began to question them about race in today’s society. James is a human resource manager at a fairly large company in downtown Minneapolis. But what he said to me in all seriousness, I found both funny and appalling.
“Change your name,” he said.
Since James was somewhat of an “original” American name, he was able to land an interview with his company and get a job. He admits that even though he is a minority, he himself tends to look through piles of resumes and unconsciously starts omitting names that suggest the applicant is a minority. “I don’t know why…but if I see a ‘John Smith’ and a ‘Lang Chin,” I choose ‘Smith’. Regardless of education or experience, many people in HR just want to make things simple. They don’t want to have to worry about communication and language barriers. Some even have biased opinions on whether they would be hard workers to begin with. It becomes a hassle.”
By then, I was floored. I began to question my own efforts to land a job…is that really why no one called me back?
My maiden name is Esther Chong. My first name, maybe it can pass, but CHONG! And now my married name doesn’t seem to make it any easier either – Hong. Yes, just take the C – from Chong and you get my married name. Apparently this is a very hard concept for people to understand, much less pronounce? And it somehow makes me lazier than some random guy named “Smith” too?
I told James of the numerous resumes I’d emailed to prospective employers. His response was, “No offense to you, and don’t get upset, but they were most likely not even looked at. That’s just how it is.”
James clued me into new studies about this “race” factor. One person would send in the exact resume with different names to companies, but it was the person with the more “American” name that would be called in for an interview whereas the other would not even get a call back. Despite this disheartening news, we managed to enjoy a night filled with wine and Korean food; later our conversation would lead us to poke fun at our Korean names.
Sometime later, I did contemplate as to whether or not I should change my name to get a job. I joked around with my husband, “Maybe I should put my name down as Esther ‘Watson’ and once I get the interview, I’ll just tell them it was a typo?”
In thinking about this, I found it made me miss my friends, past professors, past employers, and the closeness within this tight-knit community I had in Oklahoma. My move to Minneapolis was a life-changer. I think the “race” factor is an ongoing problem throughout this country and it’s keeping specific people unemployed. It happens everywhere, but it doesn’t make it right. Let’s be honest: there’s no such thing as a benign system of institutional racism.
After a year of searching, I now have a job in downtown Minneapolis. I am writing this in my small cubicle of an office, and I am happy to be in my “small cubicle of an office.”
But don’t worry about me; I used my own name to get this position.
I’m going to leave off with a money question: would you really change your name to get a job interview for people who are kind of racist or would you make them accept you on your own terms?
Feel free to discuss it among yourselves.