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  • Writer's pictureNicole Vorrasi Bates

What's in a Name?

April 6, 2021. As I was perusing Twitter this morning, I discovered that the amazingly talented Thandie Newton isn’t actually Thandie Newton; she is Thandiwe Newton. For 30 years, she has been going by Thandie because the “W” in her “first name was ‘carelessly’ forgotten when she was credited with her first acting role.” Not anymore. In a recent Vogue interview, she said “That’s my name. It’s always been my name. I’m taking back what’s mine.”

I immediately thought of Penisha from our recent blog, “How Obvious Do the Discrimination and Bias Need to Be?” In that blog, I conveyed my utter dismay over the suggestion that, even today, in 2021, Black women need to make their names sound more white, or we must remove all identifying information from the employment screening process to avoid discrimination against Black women and increase the likelihood of getting an interview.

This concept of “whitening a resume” – where an applicant alters her/his name, omits or alters the description of certain experiences that could divulge racial information, emphasizes experiences and/or interests that are predominately associated with white people – has been around for decades to combat the fact -- as studies have shown – that applicants with resumes containing minority racial clues are 30%-50% less likely to get an interview.

How is it possible that this is still necessary in 2021?!

Sadly, a reply to the tweet with the Thandiwe Newton article made it crystal clear – that at best, people do not get it, and at worst, well . . . “Misspelled. Once yes, but her entire career...hardly. it was a deliberate change.” Yes sir, it was, just not by Thandiwe.

And once changed, can you blame her for not changing it back, most likely in fear of losing out on jobs for being “too Black?”

According to a 2016 report, “resume whitening” works – Black candidates were almost 2.5 times more likely to get a callback on a resume that removed racial indicators with respect to both names and experiences, and Asians were almost two times as likely.

The report also examined callback rates for resumes submitted by Black and Asian candidates to employers that “explicitly include pro-diversity rhetoric” in the job listing. In those instances, candidates were less likely to remove racial clues. Unfortunately, the self-proclaimed value placed on diversity was just that – rhetoric; these employers called back no more candidates with “un-whitened” resumes than other employers.

Sad, but not shocking.

Throughout my career, my experience with employers’ diversity efforts has been that they are little more than self-serving lip service.

I remember when diversity efforts first became a “thing” at law firms when large corporate clients started requiring that detailed information on any such efforts be included in any request for proposals to provide legal services. Thinking that would be an excellent way to start a dialogue on gender issues, I asked to join the diversity initiatives, but I was informed that women were “not considered diverse.” I suppose I was not missing out on much as the “diversity efforts” consisted of a lunch and a movie once a month that anyone could attend. Box checked.

Obviously, the needle has barely moved.

Over the years, to the extent various diversity efforts have expanded beyond lunches, echoless PR releases and website fluff, any such growth is almost universally attributable to outside pressures, such as customer/client mandates and increased societal pressure – for example, as a result of the rise of the #MeTooMovement.

Earlier this year, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the Coca-Cola Company, Bradley M. Gayton, recognized this in an open letter to U.S. law firms providing services to the company. He wrote:

I write you with a heavy heart. For decades, our profession has had discussions about why diversity is important. We have developed scorecards, held summits, established committees and written action plans. These efforts are not working. . . .

As a consumer of legal services, we believe that diversity of talent on our legal matters is a critical factor to driving better business outcomes. We will no longer celebrate good intentions or highly unproductive efforts that haven’t and aren’t likely to produce better diverse staffing. Quite simply, we are no longer interested in discussing motivations, programs or excuses, for little or no progress – it’s the results that we are demanding and will measure going forward.

Gayton then set forth Coke’s new guidelines, which include:

  • 30% (eventually increasing to 50% to reflect society) of attorneys working on Coke matters must be diverse attorneys, half of whom are Black, performing work that will support their development;

  • Firms must identify two or more partners, half of whom are Black, to succeed to the role of relationship partner; and

  • Firms must provide information on how working on Coke matters factors into performance evaluations and compensation.

If the guidelines are not met, firms risk losing up to 30% of the fees owed as well as losing the ability to work on Coke matters.

This is a bold, much-needed, first step as it is mandating equity for diverse attorneys – through opportunities, sponsorship and compensation and importantly, penalties when guidelines are not met. As admitted by Gayton, the “plan is not perfect, but it is a start that I believe offers greater promise of success,” and we have to act now – time is of the essence.

For its part, Coke’s in-house lawyers are 51% ethnically diverse (23% Black, 18% Asian and 10% Hispanic) and 53% are women, and the Company is thinking boldly about the actions they take internally and “across the community to drive significant collective change.” To that end, just last week, Coke furthered its commitment to equality by denouncing voter suppression laws recently enacted in Georgia that for all appearances target people of color, particularly Black voters.

If we are going to achieve gender and racial equality and combat systemic racism and misogyny, we need more companies and employers to join the Coca-Cola Company in its commitment. It is going to take widespread corporate pressure on businesses – and a societal movement.

To answer the ignorant-at-best tweeter, maybe Thandiwe Newton decided to take back her name now, after 30 years, as she feels the start of a movement. #ShatteringGlass.

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