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Implicit Bias in Names: An Unintentional Case Study

June 15, 2020 laurawattenberg 10 Comments

Implicit Bias in Names: An Unintentional Case Study

June 15, 2020 LauraWattenberg 10 Comments
Screenshot of video showing resumes of cartoon "Kevin Johnson" and "Jamal Johnson"

As our nation confronts the massive toll of systemic racism, a viral video on the subject has been viewed millions of times. In simple animation, the video presents two hypothetical American boys, one white and one black. The two characters become avatars of the multigenerational effects of privilege on one side, and systemic racism and implicit bias on the other. As one example of implicit bias, the video explains that as the boys grow up, their very names lead them to be treated differently. The black character’s name is Jamal Johnson; the white character is Kevin Johnson.

The names immediately gave me pause, because the most prominent real-life Kevin Johnson is African-American: a former all-star NBA basketball player turned politician, who served two terms as mayor of Sacramento. More subtly, the two names seem incomparable as names. The average Jamal is younger than the average Kevin, and historically Kevin is vastly more common. 37 times as common, to be exact.

Historical popularity graph showing the number of Kevins dwarfing Jamals

What’s more, Kevin is simply not a particularly white name. A predominantly white counterpart to Jamal might be Dane or Heath, choices which I believe would have made the video’s whole hypothetical comparison read differently. The choice of the names Jamal and Kevin Johnson to signal black and white reflects a misreading of names, and that misreading itself suggests a form of implicit bias.

Jamal and Kevin By the Numbers

Jamal, from the Arabic for “beauty,” was part of a wave of African-inspired names that took off in America starting in the late 1960s. In addition to its Arabic origins, Jamal is distinguished as a non-white name by its iambic (last-syllable) stress pattern, a pattern virtually absent in contemporary white male names. The name Jamal is no longer very common, but it remains a staple of “diverse naming” in educational materials like standardized test questions, where it signals African-American identity.

Kevin, in contrast, is a name of Irish origin which first took hold in America in the 1920s and ranked in the top 100 for almost 70 years. Kevin does not hold strong ethnic associations in American usage. Its stress pattern is a trochee, the overwhelmingly dominant sound for American males.

To break down the names’ popularity in a racial context, the place to start is New York City. That large and diverse metropolis reports on name usage by race, which the country as a whole does not. The name Jamal reached its peak popularity in NYC in the mid-1970s, when it ranked #25 among all names for African-American boys. The name Kevin was far ahead as the #7 name for African-American boys. Among white boys, though, Kevin ranked down at #33. As a proportion of births, the name Kevin was nearly twice as common among black boys.

In short, it appears that Kevin is a more common name for black men than Jamal is, and a black man is more likely to be named Kevin than a white man. Furthermore, the surname Johnson is also disproportionately common among black families. Together, Kevin+Johnson yields a full name which is borne by thousands of American men, both black and white, but with a much higher than average percentage of black men. For a snapshot of the name in the public consciousness, Wikipedia lists pages for a dozen American Kevin Johnsons: 1 Latino, 4 white, and 7 black.

The Nuance of Kevin

How, then, could the creators of the anti-bias video come to choose the name Kevin Johnson as an emblem of white privilege? For a possible answer, let’s look again at the usage of the name Jamal. The NYC stats show that Jamal’s heyday ran from the mid-’70s to the mid-’90s. During that time, the total number of NON-black Jamals registered was zero. Jamal was a purely black name. Kevin, while most popular among black families, was at least moderately common for all races.

If the video had been about name discrimination, comparing a specifically black name like Jamal to a cross-racial name like Kevin might have made sense. But in this case, the character of Kevin symbolizes whiteness in America. The effect of the choice is to treat whiteness as a cultural default, the standard for anything not specifically designated as black. Or even, on some level, to suggest that the video’s comparison is between black Americans and “ordinary” Americans.

To put it in academic terms, “white name” is being positioned here as the unmarked identity—the neutral baseline, the regular form—and black as the marked identity—the divergent. It’s similar to how a marked term like “lady doctor” points to male doctors as the unmarked norm, and incorporates an assumption that doctors are men unless otherwise noted. The fact that the name Kevin is far more common and cross-generational than Jamal further reinforces the impression of the white character in the video as the everyman, and the black character as the other.

There’s a sad irony to this unintentional framing sneaking into a video intended to teach about implicit bias. We might take it as one more sign of how pervasive that bias is, and how hard it is to eradicate it from our thinking, our language, and our society.


Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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  • Chelsea June 15, 2020 at 10:52 pm

    Curious what names you would have picked for the characters in the video!

    • LauraWattenberg
      LauraWattenberg June 15, 2020 at 11:35 pm

      Ooh, that’s an interesting challenge! Two given names with comparable historical popularity and comparable (but opposite) racial distributions, relatively youthful but with enough history to be familiar and sound reasonable on both a child and a 20-something, matched with a generic-sounding and racially balanced surname. Maybe Alec and Malik Thompson? Dalton and Jalen Shaw?

  • Nancy June 16, 2020 at 12:25 am

    Right after I read this very interesting post, I saw a tweet about Jamaal Bowman, 43, who is challenging an incumbent Democratic congressman from New York. So I wondered: Did you include alternate spellings of “Jamal” in your analysis?

    • LauraWattenberg
      LauraWattenberg June 16, 2020 at 1:08 am

      Hi Nancy! For this analysis I only used the most standard spellings, no Jamaals or Kevans. Jamaal had its own distinctive popularity trajectory that tracked the career arc of basketball player Jamaal Wilkes. (And Jamaal Bowman was born around the time that Wilkes made his first NBA all-star team.)

  • holey
    holey June 27, 2020 at 11:23 am

    Does anybody know of any studies that measure implicit bias on traditional names versus newly-coined ones? For example, Beatrice versus Braelynn? I think it could be interesting to see how that bias (if any) interacts with bias based on race/gender/ethnicity.

    It’s hard for me to think of a male name that screams “definitely white.” And maybe a generic name like Kevin is an appropriate choice anyway, since it allows employers to project their own expectations on the name. In other words, “Kevin” allows someone to picture a white person, while “Jamal” doesn’t, so much.

    It does make me wonder how much of the bias is because Jamal sounds like a “black” name and how much is because it sounds like a niche or trendy name. I want to be clear that I am not suggesting there is no implicit racial bias. But I am wondering how it interacts with other biases.

    Readers of this site probably know that Jamal isn’t just some made-up name, but I’d bet a significant chunk of the US population does not know that and just thinks of it as trendy. (And, more specifically, trendy for black people.)

    I think Washington is a much more common surname for black Americans, right? I wonder what kind of a difference you might see with Michael Washington vs. Michael Antonelli or something like that. But then I’m not sure whether the public in general associates the surname Washington with being black, so maybe it wouldn’t work.

    • Namerology
      Namerology June 27, 2020 at 2:12 pm

      @holey People definitely parse more than just race in names, and you’re right that common & traditional names tend to be rated as more competent, and generally viewed more favorably. (My guess is that a major part of the the “generally more favorably” is simply less reaction overall. A name like Michael on a resume is received neutrally, so rather than reacting to the name you just see the qualifications.)

      But that’s part of what bothers me about the use of Kevin to signal whiteness. It adds an extra variable that confounds the effect of race–and plays into the false impression that a “typical black name” is a name specific to black families. In fact, Michael and Kevin ARE “typical black names.” It also reinforces the false impression that white families still use old familiar names, which is far from true:

      • holey
        holey June 27, 2020 at 4:40 pm

        Checking the video, you’re right – they do call Kevin a “white-sounding” name, so they’re not setting it up as just a generic, could-be-any-race name.

        I wonder what the whitest-sounding name would be (in the US). My first thought was Lars, but it’s not in the top 1000. Leif and Bjorn make it into the top 1000, barely. Using the Ultimate US Name Map, I notice that Fin- names seem to be concentrated in the northern US; maybe those skew heavily white?

        It’s interesting that one of your suggestions up above was Dalton for a white guy and Jalen for a black guy, because I tend to think of Jalen as a white-person name. Your perception is probably a lot more accurate than mine.

  • Nicwoo July 19, 2020 at 6:44 am

    Way to be —spotting the irony of using white Kevin as a default vs. the real data! If the question remains, what about say, Andy Smith vs. André Smith? (I’m thinking of many white males I know who are Andy or as variant of Andrew and how sounds of French acceptance plays into the African American experience as well. (?) Keep all the exposés coming.

  • Annika January 23, 2021 at 2:03 pm

    I’m so happy I found this as my son Kevin had noticed from popular culture that “his” name was often used for Black characters, or that Black actors/other stars are often named Kevin. And we got curious as to if this perception we had was true, so thank you for giving us the statistics that it is! Now we’re wondering: why? Do you know/have any guesses?

  • Rissa January 31, 2023 at 2:34 am

    This is a great article – thanks for breaking it down! I’m always disheartened (if wryly amused) when bias shows up in bias awareness work. Only goes to show, it really is everywhere!

    An interesting aside: my name is Marissa, and I haven’t met many others. Once, though, I was hired at the same time as a Marisa for a new position, and we bonded quickly. I’m white; she’s Black. When we compared notes on our names, we both had stories of people reacting to our names: “Oh, you’re white/Black? I had assumed from your name that you would be Black/white.” Isn’t it funny how different people have different associations and expectations? We both had a good laugh about it. And rather than going as “white Marissa” and “Black Marisa” at work, she was Marisa and I went by Rissa. 🙂

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