Uber and Name Discrimination in the New "Name Only" World

Nov 2nd 2016

More and more, you are your name. As our public interactions increasingly turn virtual, names are bearing a bigger burden of first impressions. That means they're bearing a bigger share of prejudice and snap judgments, too.

The latest evidence of this comes from a study that reveals racial discrepancies in the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft. Researchers requested rides under different names, some typically African-American and some typically white. The presumedly African-American passengers faced longer waits and higher cancellation rates for the same routes. This pattern was based on the one and only piece of information drivers had about the passengers: their first names.

The ride-sharing study was fundamentally about racial discrimination, not names. The researchers just used names as a mechanism to reveal a pervasive and disturbing phenomenon. But in this case, I believe the mechanism is also a phenomenon in its own right.

Names have always sent signals about culture and identity. In the past, though, a name reliably came with context. People met face to face, or at least received some meaningful communication plus social cues like voices, addresses, handwriting and more. An Uber or Lyft passenger is stripped down to nothing but a first name. That focuses all of our human instinct to identify and assess one another, fairly or not, onto that single string of characters.

As these name-only interactions proliferate, the way we name children is changing too. I like to compare America's baby naming culture to an office dress code. In past generations there was an accepted uniform, or at least an expectation of a suit and tie. In that environment, nobody's outfit said much about them. Today there's no longer a baby name "dress code," and parents strive to make distinctive choices. In clothing terms, it's like an office where the coworker to your right wears a tuxedo, to the left is a toga, and across the aisle is a gown handcrafted from styrofoam cups.

In other words, our kids are entering this world name-first, with eye-catching names that speak volumes. Unlike clothing, these names can't be changed to suit different situations and audiences. What's more, the names speak volumes about the parents, not the kids. Our children head out into the world to make a lifetime of impressions, labeled with an emblem of their parents' taste and worldview.

The impressions today's names convey go far beyond black and white. Take a look at these names, all of which rank among the 100 most popular names for newborn American girls:


I'll bet that many of these names make a strong impression on you. Perhaps you can even form an image of the typical parents who choose each. You probably like a few of them, shrug your shoulders about others...and a couple of them absolutely set your teeth on edge.

The teeth-gnashing feeling is widespread today. That simply wasn't the case with, say, the top 100 girls' names of 1950. The range of styles back then was more constrained. No words newly adopted as names, no dramatic surname transfers, no aggressively antique names, and little creative spelling or androgyny. Parents surely had their preferences, but most of the names were broad-based hits, not linked to any particular demographic.

So today we have a new and growing realm of name-based encounters, and increasingly diverse and divisive names. It's a combustible mix. If name styles continue to fracture, we'll read more and more social information into every name. And with every new app, those names will gain new influence. The effects may not always be as stark as in the recent discrimination findings, but they'll affect each of us--in our likelihood to pick up a fare, to accept an invitation, or to swipe right.




November 2, 2016 3:20 PM

As naming diversity increases, even previously "safe" names now send messages. I can envision a time when an Emma or Jacob job candidate is as likely to face hiring committee prejudices about lack of creativity as a Jodhpur or Sparkliana is to face prejudices about lack of gravitas or education.

November 2, 2016 4:38 PM

There's a whole other downside you haven't even considered: http://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/naming-trends

November 2, 2016 6:51 PM

I can also foresee a time when all the currently popular names are sufficiently date stamped as to have their bearers fall victim to age discrimination when seeking employment.  Something to be said for giving a child a "perennial" middle name.

November 7, 2016 5:41 PM

The only thing I disagree with is the statement "Unlike clothing, these names can't be changed to suit different situations and audiences." I think that many names do offer such flexibility and are often chosen for this feature. Think about all those parents looking for a "formal" name to go with the desired nickname in order to give the child dressed-up and dressed-down forms to choose from, depending on personality and situation.