My name is Chinenye Onyeike, but if you ask my old college professors and a handful of old classmates, they’ll refer to me as Chi-Chi Onyeike with loads of confidence. But, can I blame them? When NYU provided the option to choose a “preferred name” through their online portal, NYU Albert, I typed Chi-Chi with a huge smile on my face. From childhood, my name added a lot of anxiety to the first day of school. I’d hear the flow of my friends’ easy-to-pronounce names dance off my teachers’ lips anxiously awaiting for the stutter to interrupt it. “Ch-, Ch-, Ch-” she’d stutter. “Just call me Chi-Chi” I’d respond, cutting her off before she could spew out “Cheyenne”, “Chinenee”, or my personal favorite, “Shanaynay”. Using Chi-Chi saved me from this embarrassment since Kindergarten; even my high school yearbook quote was “Just call me Chi-Chi”. Towards the tail end of my senior year of college, I noticed how few people actually knew my full first name. Had I not double-checked my NYU Albert account, “Chi-Chi Onyeike” would have been written on my college diploma. As a budding journalist, I want people, classrooms, and work environments to know me as Chinenye, and I think other young professionals with culturally different names should want the same. If we want to encourage more inclusivity within work environments, we need to start proudly using our ethnic names in and out of the workplace.
“If we want to encourage more inclusivity within work environments, we need to start proudly using our ethnic names in and out of the workplace.”
I had a few friends in my classes with “different” names who shared my name anxieties. It was usually just a few of us that preferred a nickname. When you’re one of few students of color in predominately white environments, you learn to assimilate to the majority. Calling myself Chi-Chi helped me assimilate to the majority. Applicants of color often use this tactic to increase their chances of getting hired. According to Michael Luo’s New York Times article, Whitening the Resume, “Black job seekers said the purpose of hiding racial markers extended beyond simply getting in the door for an interview. It was also part of making sure they appeared palatable to hiring managers once race was seen.” Applicants of color willingly change their names on job applications and move experiences that link to their ethnic background either to the bottom of or off of their resume completely. It’s the tip of the iceberg that encourages people of ethnic backgrounds to dilute parts of their identity to fit into the great American melting pot. Asian immigrants carry a tradition of anglicizing when they arrive in the States. They often choose English names for themselves and their children to help with attending school and finding a job. It is true and has been proven that white-sounding names have a better chance of getting to the interview and hiring stage than ethnic names. Black-sounding names are 50% more likely to get turned down for a job than applicants with white-sounding names, according to a study published in The American Economic Review titled, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakeisha and Jamal?” But why is this the status quo? Why do we have to conform to a standard that makes hiring managers more comfortable but erases part of our identity?
“Why do we have to conform to a standard that makes hiring managers more comfortable but erases part of our identity?”
Chinenye means “God is the giver”. Religious or not, there’s no denying the beauty of my Igbo name. However, at a point, I didn’t find that name pretty at all. In fact, I never wanted to hear it from anyone outside of my immediate family. Hearing it butchered over and over made me embarrassed to have a Nigerian name. Why didn’t my parents just name me Amanda as they planned? I thought this to myself often. Some would laugh when trying to pronounce it, ask me why my mother gave me such a complicated name, and say, “I’m not even going to try to pronounce this” when they saw it written out on paper. It all made me feel horrible about that part of my identity; it wasn’t that I hated my name, it’s that I was taught to.
“It wasn’t that I hated my name, it’s that I was taught to.”
Changing or shortening one’s name to a more digestible version creates a rift within a person. The easier version of the name serves as a mask used to make navigating the academic and professional world smoother. But while wearing this mask, you’re constantly reminded of the fact that your name represents a part of you that the majority of white America is not yet comfortable with. We’re allowing societal practices rooted in non-acceptance to dictate how we show up to work and school everyday. We’re falling in line with where society wants us to be, which moves us further from presenting our authentic selves. In her New York Times article, actress Kelly Marie Tran discusses these frustrations as she explains how her parents changing their names to English names to navigate America easier still pains her.
“We’re allowing societal practices rooted in non-acceptance to dictate how we show up to work and school everyday. We’re falling in line with where society wants us to be, which moves us further from presenting our authentic selves.”
Hasan Minhaj brought this issue to a public space during his 2019 interview with Ellen Degeneres. After Degeneres mispronounced his name, Minhaj called her, and most of the general public out for consistently mispronouncing his name and provided the correct pronunciation. When he started working in comedy, people advised Minhaj to consider changing his name so that others would have an easier time saying it. Minhaj did not take this advice. In his own words, “if you can pronounce Ansel Elgort, you can pronounce Hasan Minhaj”; I couldn’t agree with him more. In elementary school, I had to learn to say and spell photosynthesis, Sigmund Freud, and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (yup, third-grade spelling word). If I can take the time to learn to pronounce these words, more of my teachers could have taken the time to learn the proper pronunciation of my full name. I’ll admit, it’s easier to call myself Chi-Chi in professional and academic spaces, it quickly soothes my anxieties. But just because it’s easier, does not mean it’s fair. Slowly but surely, I found the courage my younger self needed to stick up for my name and heritage.
In my ABC 7 interview, I heard my first and last name pronounced beautifully and spelled correctly across my television screen. For the first time, I was so happy my parents decided not to name me Amanda. Even my friends commented on how lovely my name sounded. It was no longer too hard to pronounce, it’s a representation of a force to be reckoned with. My familial heritage screams off any piece of paper Chinenye Onyeike is written on and I plan to see it written in bylines, producer credits, and my own building one day. Walking in the confidence of having an ethnically powerful name makes it easier to put my most authentic self forward in and out of the workplace. Casually, I’ll always go by Chi-Chi. Professionally, please call me Chinenye.
Chinenye Onyeike is a recent NYU graduate with a B.S. in Media, Culture, and Communication and a minor in Business of Entertainment, Media, and Technology. She currently interns at SiriusXM within their podcast company, Stitcher, where she works with the production team for podcasts within their Witness Docs department. Along with this internship, Onyeike spends her time creating, hosting, and producing her own podcast, The Court.