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AAPI Heritage Month: Nordstrom Rack President Geevy Thomas on the Pitfalls of Name Discrimination

For AAPI Heritage Month, FN is spotlighting Asian American and Pacific Islander executives, entrepreneurs and designers as part of its ongoing commitment to champion diversity across all areas of the footwear business.

What’s in a name? To Geevy Thomas, it could mean the difference between one’s advancement in the workplace — and a promotion waiting to happen or resume unmaliciously tossed to the side.

“One of the things I thought about was how something as simple as a name can have an impact on how people perceive you,” said Thomas, a first-generation Indian American who now serves as president of Nordstrom Rack. “How many opportunities would a person miss out on because someone else is too afraid to say their name and get it wrong?”

He continued, “Not everything about racism is rooted in evil; sometimes it’s rooted in embarrassment.”

Many Asian Americans, as well as Black and Latinx people, face biases in name discrimination: According to a study from researchers at Canada-based Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, job applicants with Asian names — that is, those of Indian, Pakistani or Chinese origin — were 28% less likely to score an interview versus applicants with so-called Anglo names, even with the same education and experience qualifications.

Thomas — who “always wanted to be named ‘Jim'” after the gunslinging hero in classic TV series “The Wild Wild West” — shared that he was named after his grandfather, who was a preacher of the Baptist faith. Tracing his roots, he told FN that his father’s name was Joseph, whose brothers were John, Phillip and George — all Christian names that were also considered relatively popular in the United States. His own children, who are half-Indian and half-white, are named Audrey and Joseph.

“On their resumes, nobody would know my daughter and son are racially diverse. I didn’t consciously think of that; I named my son after my father … [but I’ve realized] it’s easier for people who live here to accept an English-speaking person of color with a name that’s American and who is Christian,” said Thomas, who explained that his own parents’ way of assimilating into the U.S. “was to give up almost all of their Indian traditions.”

He added, “My father was worried that, if I had an accent, it might have an impact on my life.”

In mid-June, Thomas is marking 39 years at Nordstrom, where he has served in a variety of roles. He recalled one of his earlier experiences with racist microaggressions: When he was working at the chain’s downtown Seattle flagship, he said customers would often come up to him and ask to speak with the store manager. He said he would then make a circle around them and reintroduce himself.

“I don’t think they were expecting somebody who looked like me to be the store manager of a flagship,” he said. “I was 28 years old. I always assumed the reason they asked for the real store manager was actually my age as opposed to my race. For some, it might’ve been, but for others, maybe I didn’t look like what I should.”

He continued, “People of color, in general, are subject to what others expect them to be. I’ve always felt that I benefited at Nordstrom, with its culture of recognition for merit and ability. In other words, they were only interested, when I was a salesperson, if I could make customers feel good and look their best or my ability to lead a team and get results.”

As of 2019, Asians and Pacific Islanders composed 11% of Nordstrom’s workforce, while Black or African Americans and Hispanic or Latino people made up a respective 19% and 23% of all employees. (White workers, on the other hand, represented 41% of its employee base.) What’s more, 7% of Asians and Pacific Islanders were frontline managers, 13% were mid-level managers and 11% were at the executive level. Comparatively, in 1988, only 15.7% of Nordstrom managers were people of color.

“What’s top of mind for me now is how we emerge from this [pandemic] better than when we went into it,” said Thomas. “From my standpoint, you never want to waste a crisis. You want the opportunity to get better and find ways of creating a more inclusive environment for all employees and customers. I think Nordstrom has become much more aware of our role and the communities we serve.”

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