By Yunita Ong
WASHINGTON – When Laura Drain moved from Mexico City to Atlanta to be a Hewlett-Packard engineer 15 years ago, she was single and her maiden name, Ramirez, created tensions with her co-workers.
“People called me different and the pronunciation of my name was totally changed,” she said.
Immigrants and ethnic minorities past and present in the U.S have shared Drain’s experiencies with foreign-sounding names. To fit in, many legally changed their names or adopted a more Anglicized one in various social settings. Although no statistics are available on the number of name-changers, experts said it was a very common practice at the beginning of the 20th century and still is, although less so.
With the U.S. on track to a nonwhite majority by 2042, those same experts say, name-changing paints a telling portrait of how Americans deal with differences in society and how immigrants and their offspring integrate into mainstream America.
Unpacking the meaning of names
“What’s fascinating about personal names is that they are positioned at the intersection of public and private,” said Jonathan Rosa, a professor in linguistic anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
In their home countries, immigrants’ names can be a trove of personal and cultural meaning, said Diane Dechief, a lecturer at Canada’s McGill University and vice president for the Montreal chapter of the Canadian Society for the Study of Names. For instance, in some parts of Africa, people are named based on the day they were born.
“But when their society shifts because they’ve emigrated or they’re a second- or third-generation American and an ethnic minority, their name can no longer be read by those around them,” she said. “Their individual identity is compromised and cannot be validated anymore.”
History of name changes in the U.S.
Although there are no reliable statistics, it was not uncommon for European or Jewish immigrants to the United States from the earliest days through today to change their names to avoid discrimination, said Nancy Foner, a sociology professor at Hunter College at the City University of New York.
Legal name changes are not as common nowadays, she said, because the civil rights movement shifted attitudes towards ethnic differences. But they still occur,said San Diego, California immigration attorney Tammy Lin.
“It’s really a split in terms of folks wanting to change their names,” she said. “Typically, any name changes are from dropping parts of their name that made it too long or confusing.”
Numerous studies over the years have pointed out the correlation between having an Anglicized name and achieving career success or societal integration.
A University of Southern California study last year found that state legislators were more likely to reply to letters from constituents written by someone with a name like “Jacob Smith” rather than “Santiago Rodriguez.”
In 2003, two researchers at the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a paper that said job applicants with white-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to be asked to an initial interview than those with African-American-sounding names.
The same is true today in the job market, said Roy Cohen, a New York City career coach and author of “The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide.”
He has advised clients to go by white-sounding names because an “ethnic” one could suggest to recruiters that they are foreign citizens needing a sponsored visa or unable to fit in with company culture.
“I hate for them to lose their cultural identity,” he said. “But American companies still tend to be provincial and not as open to people who are different.”
Avoiding “linguistic profiling”
Anglicized names help immigrants avoid what Rosa, the anthropology professor, called “linguistic profiling” when seeking employment, education or housing, which is innately unfair.
“It promotes a notion that if these groups would just assimilate, they would be included in society,” he said. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean social inclusion.”
Minorities are perceived as “authentically unAmerican” if they preserved their foreign-sounding names, but criticized as “unauthentically American” if they adopted a white-sounding one, he said.
But he also observed that many young people might reject the duality and seek to embrace their culture.
Mike Zhu, a Duke University junior whose legal first name is Henyen, said that many Chinese immigrants, including his own, give their children an English name when they arrive in the U.S. to help them fit in in school.
He does not think he will ever legally change his birth name. “I can’t speak Mandarin very well, so keeping my name is holding on to a little part of my heritage,” he said.
Jeehee Yang, a first-year Harvard University law student from South Korea, started going by “Naomi” while in college and then at work . “People certainly remember my name better after introductions, and I don’t have to explain the pronunciation multiple times,” she said.
But her birth name keeps her connected to her roots. “I do like it when my close friends start using my Korean name more and more,” she said.
Attitudes towards foreign-sounding names are likely to shift as America’s demographics shift, said Rosa.
A prominent example is President Barack Obama, the first African-American president. His first name means “blessed” in Swahili, and last name comes from a Nilo-Saharan language spoken in Western Kenya.
Rosa said that Obama’s name represents the diversity of the U.S..
“We now see his name mapped on schools throughout the U.S. and kids being named Barack,” Rosa said. “A name like this that was once different and unAmerican, can become institutionally recognized.”