Hello, My Name Is Marijuana Pepsi!

Research shows that having a distinctively black name doesn’t affect your economic future. But what is the day-to-day reality of living with such a name? Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck, a newly-minted PhD, is well qualified to answer this question. Her verdict: The data don’t tell the whole story.

Some years ago, a new third-grade teacher in Atlanta, Georgia, was sitting with her colleagues at the beginning of the school year. The teachers had just been given their class lists, and one of the teachers was angry. After taking a quick look at her class list, she complained to the principal, “Every effing year, I get these bad-A students, and my test scores are going to be in the toilet.”

“And I am sitting there, looking at the front and back of my paper, because clearly I’m missing some sheets of paper,” recalls the new teacher. “Clearly, she’s received something with more information than I have. I’m like, ‘What am I missing? What is the matter? What does she know about her test scores? I don’t have any test scores.’”

The new teacher’s colleagues told her to look at the names on her class list. They were distinctively African American names — names like Jalia, Kanea, Dequan, and Laquan — which apparently led the angry teacher, who was white, to surmise that they’d be poor students and that they’d make her look bad too.

That experience ultimately inspired the new teacher to undertake a research project, which recently became her PhD dissertation. It’s called “Black Names in White Classrooms: Teacher Behaviors and Student Perceptions.” The author’s name: Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck. Last week on Freakonomics Radio, we asked, “How much does a name really matter?” This week on Freakonomics Radio: the story of Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck — and what she’s learned about the power of a name.

Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck has attracted quite a bit of media attention over the years, thanks to her name. She was born in Chicago in 1972. Her mother is an entrepreneur, and her father was a university bus driver. Marijuana Pepsi was the middle of three sisters. The others were named Kimberly and Robyn. It was her mother who named her.

“She shared with me that she believes that my name would take me around the world,” Vandyck says. “And that was always the answer I got when I asked her [about my name].”

When she was very young, Marijuana Pepsi lived with her father in Chicago and attended a mostly African American school. Her teachers called her by her name without incident. In fact, she didn’t know that her name was unusual until she moved to Beloit, Wisconsin, in the fourth grade. Beloit, like much of Wisconsin, is overwhelmingly white. From the beginning, it was clear that her name was going to be an issue. Students teased her and bullied her. Teachers couldn’t seem to help themselves from asking questions about her family and giving opinions about her name.

Back in Chicago, school had been a joy for Marijuana. She was a good student, and she had good relationships with her teachers and other students. Beloit was different.

There, “it was very clear that Marijuana Pepsi was not usual,” she says. “It opened the doors for a lot of teasing and bullying and issues. And not just from the students themselves. [Teachers] questioned … the type of family that I had and what type of mother would name a child this.”

Vandyck felt like she didn’t belong, like the other students didn’t want her there. She says she even contemplated suicide. Vandyck says there were a lot of reasons she was having such a hard time in addition to the trouble caused by her name, including family issues. Vandyck left home when she was 15. At the time, she was getting mostly F’s in school. She was living day to day, she says, not thinking much about the future — until one day, her cousin (who is four years younger) proudly declared that she’d be the first in their family to go to college. That spurred Vandyck into action. She went to her counselor’s office, got into a credit-recovery program, and ultimately won an academic scholarship to go to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Vandyck’s first major in college was business. But she also loved education, and she wound up becoming a schoolteacher. Even so, she kept her hand in business. She owned and operated a real-estate company and did real-estate investing. Given her unusual name, this led to some problems.

“So they would steal [the for-sale signs],” Vandyck says. “You know, I had phone calls from sellers, ‘Hey, Marijuana, someone stopped and snatched the sign. They’re driving off down the street. I’m trying to get the license plate.’”

Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck had clearly thought longer and harder than most people about the effects of a first name. But even this did not prepare her for what happened at her new school in Atlanta and her fellow teacher’s angry response to seeing the class list. This kind of response, she would come to learn, was not so uncommon among white teachers. The response also changed her view of the profession.

“It just reminded me that teachers … we are human,” Vandyck says. “We have the same preconceived judgments. … What I was shocked and disheartened to see is that when we have those thoughts, it seemed that we stuck with those instead of saying, ‘OK, I’m thinking this. Let me just see. I don’t know this person. Let me just go on from there.’”

A while back, economists Steven Levitt and Roland Fryer set out to determine whether distinctively black names affect children’s labor-market outcomes. They analyzed a large, rich set of data from the state of California. Their conclusion: Those names didn’t seem to influence long-term economic outcomes as indicated by things like neighborhood characteristics, health care status, and years of education.

“I know their conclusions,” Vandyck says, “and I am also in agreement with their conclusions, just based on my own research. However, I can see where someone might question that. That’s the thing with research. We’re only interested in the end result. ‘The study shows this.’ But we miss everything in between. Which is why I like the qualitative in addition to the quantitative. Because the quantitative gives us those numbers. But the qualitative tells that story.”

Whereas the Levitt-Fryer research was a big, quantitative study, the project Vandyck undertook was a much smaller, phenomenological study. The whole point of such a study is to zoom in on each individual data point with extensive group or one-on-one interviews. Vandyck was looking to speak with college students about their experiences in college but also in high school and even earlier. So she held an open call at her alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and chose 10 students who fit her study criteria. All the students were black, academically successful, had distinctively black names, and had, in Vandyck’s words, “name-related experiences throughout their academic history.”

The students in Vandyck’s study were named Mykaell, Taliyah, Radayah, Kentrell, SteVont’e, Deyounte’, Shaleece, KeJuane, Shaquille, and Drewshika. Vandyck was hoping to answer a few fundamental questions. What kind of classroom and day-to-day experiences did these students have? And what were the long-term impacts of those experiences?

She found that these students reported being subject to disrespect, low academic expectations, and stereotypes.

“The disrespect was in two distinct ways,” Vandyck says. “Disrespect was shown towards the students with their names but secondly towards the students personally as individuals. [The teachers] questioned what type of person the student was. What type of life they would have. They questioned what type of parent would name their child this.”

Vandyck also found that these experiences damaged student-teacher relationships, caused self-perception issues, and even affected career choices.

“Several of these students, they were going on to be science majors and other STEM majors, and they changed,” Vandyck says. “They wanted to work with students and not be in a lab. They wanted to be teachers because they felt that they could help other students who are going through this, to love their names and not have to put up with this. One person, they said they wanted to do race-related studies because of his experiences with this.”

You could imagine that the effects Vandyck are describing are not unique to students with distinctively black names. You could imagine students who belong to other minority groups being made to feel less capable than they are. And this jibes with other research that seeks to explain the relatively low rate of female STEM students.

Vandyck did find that some students had positive school experiences because of their names — a teacher using their name as a conversation starter, for instance, to talk about cultural backgrounds — but, she says, this rarely happened with white teachers.

Vandyck was unpleasantly surprised by her findings and by how little things had changed since her own childhood. “These students were so much younger than I was currently, and I thought that with the change over the years and the types of names now and all of the professional development around implicit bias and race and equity and diversity that things would be so much better for these students,” Vandyck says. “But it’s not.”

As part of the research project, Vandyck also asked the students in her study if they had any recommendations for teachers, faculty, and others. The students had some ideas: Be respectful, accept students and their backgrounds, and just ask how to pronounce someone’s name if you can’t figure it out. Vandyck says her research has some implications for the rest of us as well.

“You cannot judge someone by their name, by their race,” Vandyck says, noting also that “studies show that when people are actually asked about their tendencies, whether racist or just about other groups, that they firmly believe that they’re being fair and impartial. They have to … have those conversations and put that in training. And make people aware that it happens.”

Levitt and Fryer make the argument that distinctively African American names did not affect long-term economic outcomes. But Vandyck’s research suggests that the truth is more complicated: Success, she says, may come despite such names. As evidence of this, Vandyck points to one of the students in her study, Taliyah. She majored in biology and double-minored in Spanish and psychology.

“When she graduates, she is going to go on and perhaps get a PhD in biology. … She is going to be deemed successful,” Vandyck says. “And someone’s going to say, ‘Oh, she had a distinctly black name, but look, she’s successful.’ But in the short term of her navigating her educational institutions to get there, look at what she had to go through. And many of the choices and changes that she has made and many of the experiences that she’s had, they were impactful on her.”

A couple months ago, Vandyck received her doctorate in higher-education leadership from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has been working most recently at Beloit College in Wisconsin; she’s been director of their Student Excellence and Leadership Program, which supports low-income, first-generation college students.

Vandyck says that, in her case, her name did affect her career choices and who she is today. If her name had been different, she thinks she might have stayed in the business world. The reason she went into education and stuck with it, she says, is because she wanted to change how students who look like her — or look like anyone else or like no one else — will be received by the rest of the world.

“We have got to give students at least one teacher where they can come in and be themselves,” Vandyck says.

You can find the full Freakonomics Radio episode “Hello, My Name Is Marijuana Pepsi!” at Freakonomics.com. You can also listen on Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, or any other podcast platform.

Stephen J. Dubner/ Freakonomics Radio

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Stephen J. Dubner is co-author of the Freakonomics books and host of Freakonomics Radio.

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About this PODCAST

Freakonomics Radio

Discover the hidden side of everything with Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the Freakonomics books. Each week, Freakonomics Radio tells you things you always thought you knew (but didn’t) and things you never thought you wanted to know (but do) — from the economics of sleep to how to become great at just about anything. Dubner speaks with Nobel laureates and provocateurs, intellectuals and entrepreneurs.

Discover the hidden side of everything with Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the Freakonomics books. Each week, Freakonomics Radio tells you things you always thought you knew (but didn’t) and things you never thought you wanted to know (but do) — from the economics of sleep to how to become great at just about anything. Dubner speaks with Nobel laureates and provocateurs, intellectuals and entrepreneurs.

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