Résumé whitening: why I use a ‘white name’ when applying for academic jobs

After failing to be shortlisted for several jobs, a black British lecturer decided to apply to universities using a ‘whitened name’

May 25, 2016
Black academic writing an application
Source: istock
An early career black academic says he is shortlisted for job interviews more often when using a ‘whitened name’

It has reached the point where I am exhausted by friends within academia and family members asking: “Why don’t you apply for this lecturing position at this university? You have the qualifications and the experience.”

My reply is always the most simple. It is not for the want of trying, but the devil lies within the application process – and the fact that out of 17,880 professors within universities in the UK, only 85 are black (less than 1 per cent).

I first decided to become involved in teaching within higher education on the recommendation of my master’s supervisor. I applied for my first (and current) lecturing position via an unusual process – by simply sending my résumé to the head of the department.

Within two emails back and forth, I was offered the position based on my qualifications and experience, with the hiring academic noting that my experience had a very real currency with students and that the students would react well towards my teaching and technical expertise.

At this point, I didn’t think there was a glass ceiling for black academics.

Skip forward to now. I’ve developed well within academia, but the time has come for my career to progress, and for me to apply for new positions within other institutions.

Like most people, I apply only for the jobs I feel suited to – I certainly don’t feel that I over-reached for positions. I apply only if I match the person specification for all essential and nearly all desirable aspects.

As applications are a long and slow process, there isn’t much point in over-reaching for a position. You are better served by fine-tuning a job search and applying only for suitable positions.

Generally, it is not long after the closing date for positions that I get a copy-and-paste email back from the universities.

“We regret to inform you that on this occasion you have not been selected for interview. Due to the high volume of applications received, we are unable to provide feedback.”

Little did I know that this was just the tip of the application as a black academic iceberg.

With universities remaining tight-lipped on feedback, it is hard to know what to change if you apply for a similar position. I have spent the best part of the past 12 months unsuccessfully applying for positions.

I recently discovered that other colleagues and academics with fewer qualifications and less experience were being accepted or shortlisted for jobs I had applied for.

However, there was one common denominator. They were all white, and they had “white-sounding” names.

Now, I am not saying that my name is either black-sounding or white-sounding, but I started to think that there was something not quite right with the application process.

Growing up with racism was difficult, therefore I am very careful not to just claim that something is racist without finding out all the facts.

Being an active researcher, albeit in a different subject from this, I began an experiment called “résumé whitening”.

This is a practice whereby I altered some aspects of my résumé. I began by altering my name to “Alistair Beckett-Lockwood”, my ethnicity to “white”, and my address to my partner’s residence in Dorset. Every other aspect of my résumé remained the same as before.

With my new whitened résumé, I began the process of applying for academic jobs. For the purposes of the experiment, I also applied for the same jobs with my previous CV.

I applied for five positions at various universities around the UK, all within my area of expertise. Out of the five applications, my whitened résumé was shortlisted four times, compared with my normal résumé, which on all five occasions received the “we regret to inform you” copy-and-paste email that I have received previously.

The outcome of this experiment both shocked and saddened me – to know that no matter what pedagogical innovation and technical expertise I can offer to a university, I am seemingly penalised for not being white enough.

The scope of this goes further than just my own personal experience. What example are British universities setting to ethnic minority students? Are they saying, work hard, earn your degree, but you can’t get a job here?

Here I am writing this piece, believing that any applications that I send off this summer will be judged not on my qualifications and experience, but on something as trivial as my ethnicity and the way my name sounds. 

The bigger picture is that it should not be up to minorities to find ways to avoid discrimination when applying for jobs within academia.

The onus should be placed on the university to ensure that it recruits the best faculty members it can, regardless of race and the way their name sounds.

The author, who has asked not to be named, is a lecturer at a university in the South of England.

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Reader's comments (1)

It may have been the double barrelled surname that did it. From my own circle of friends, I'd say this is the reality now among different minorities within The UK. For example, a woman using her English maiden name rather than a married surname if it sounds 'Muslim', or applicants semi-Anglicizing a Muslim sounding first name and surname.

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