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Name-Based Discrimination: Does Adopting “American” Names Prevent Discrimination?

It wasn’t until college that I met someone who was from another country but who adopted a more “American” first name instead of using her original, given name. It seemed to be an effective way to ease the transition into a place where her given name would be mercilessly mispronounced by nearly anyone who met her. Since then, I’ve come to know many people in this circumstance, and I often wonder what it would be like to suddenly accept a brand new first name.

Not only are these new name adoptions meant to address pronunciation problems, but you might also wonder: does it reduce the experience of prejudice?

Some new research put this question to the test by seeing whether people face less discrimination if they choose to go by a new, more American, first name. But first, it’s worth thinking about why a name would be of any concern in the first place.

Name-Based Discrimination

name-based discrimination in resumesNames carry plenty of meaning beyond a convenient sound to call a person. Your name often signals where you’re from, how old you are, and where you might be in the social hierarchy. With information like that, then, your name has the power to give you an edge or to discredit you before anyone even meets you.

A famous study showed just how easily a name can be the basis of discrimination. Researchers responded to thousands of “Help Wanted” ads in several newspapers. They weren’t looking for work, though–they were snooping around for potential racial bias. In responding to a job ad, they would send in a resume outlining a fictional candidate’s qualifications. The resume was always the same except for one simple difference. Sometimes the applicant’s name was stereotypically White, like Anne or Brendan. Sometimes, though, it was stereotypically Black, like Aisha or Jamal.[1]  These names were selected based on analyses of birth certificate records.

The results showed a reliable race gap. When the applicant had a more White name, they had a 9.65% chance of getting a callback. But even though the resumes were identical, when the applicant had a more Black name, he or she had a 6.45% chance of getting a callback. In other words, simply having a more “Black” name resulted in a 50% lower chance of getting a callback.

Other studies have shown similar evidence of name-based discrimination. For example, having an Arab-sounding name resulted in fewer job interview callbacks, having an African-American name resulted in fewer responses from landlords, and having a non-White name or female name resulted in fewer responses from professors when a meeting was requested via email.

Adopting a More “White” Name

So, if non-White names can produce discriminatory responses, does it help to adopt a more “White” name? The issue, of course, is that the person’s last name would still signal his or her ethnicity, but does the first name “make up for it” in terms of prejudiced judgments?

names02To understand why there might be something to this, it’s worth first realizing why a lot of prejudice happens at all. According to a lot of research, people often think of their social world as “ingroups” and “outgroups.” In other words, when we encounter a person, one of the first ways we think of them is whether they’re like us in some way or instead belong to some other group.

Ordinarily, White Americans would view ethnic minorities as part of the “outgroup.” But psychologists Xian Zhao and Monica Biernat have suggested that when an ethnic minority adopts a more American first name, she is instead viewed as a partial ingroup member. As a result of such “honorary” ingroup status, she may experience less discrimination.

In a recent study, Zhao and Biernat tested this idea by emailing hundreds of college professors, posing as a Chinese student who was interested in meeting with the professor. The catch is that the student either introduced himself as Xian Zhao or Alex Zhao.

Overall, emails from “Alex Zhao” were more likely to get a response (62%) than emails from “Xian Zhao” (53%) even though the email always made it clear that the student was from China.[2]  There was also a funky pattern when it came to which professors ultimately agreed to meeting. Among Assistant Professors and Full Professors, the name didn’t matter for whether a meeting was set up. It was only among Associate Professors that “Alex” had a better shot of actually scheduling a meeting than “Xian.” At this time, though, it’s not clear why the bias would only be specific to a certain level of professorship.

A Sign of Assimilation

Obviously, this bias can’t just be an “Anti-Asian” bias because the student always introduced himself as being from China. His ethnicity was clear in each case. Nevertheless, using a more American first name increased his chances of getting a response. So…why?

One possibility is that using an American first name signals a person’s intention to assimilate into his or her new culture. Some people simply believe that immigrants should assimilate to American culture, and they fully understand the point of adopting the new first name.

Another study by Zhao and Biernat wanted to see whether name-based discrimination happens more for people with a strong belief that people who come to the U.S. should try being more American. They had college students evaluate potential instructors who might teach classes at their school. Everyone listened to the same example lecture (the instructor’s “audition”) and knew that the instructor was from China, but sometimes his first name was “Jian” and sometimes it was “John.”

People with relatively strong beliefs in assimilation liked the instructor better when he was “John,” compared to “Jian.” That is, the same bias toward American first names seemed to be there for people with that specific belief system.

Interestingly, though, the opposite bias was there for students who believed that people who come to the U.S. do not need to change their behavior. For these people, “Jian” outperformed “John.”

What’s in a Name?

Together, these findings offer an intriguing glimpse into name-based discrimination. There seems to be some evidence that ethnic minorities would experience less discrimination by adopting more American first names. The story isn’t that simple, though. Instead, it seems like this specific form of name-based bias occurs under specific circumstances.

Even more interesting (I think) is that there are times where there is a strong bias against adopting a more American name. Some people think that visitors to the U.S. should not abandon their cultures and are instead biased against people who have adopted a new first name.

Future work in this area will no doubt continue to uncover new layers in the puzzle, but the fact remains that something as simple as one’s name can affect various outcomes–for better or for worse.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  These names were selected based on analyses of birth certificate records.
2.  There was also a funky pattern when it came to which professors ultimately agreed to meeting. Among Assistant Professors and Full Professors, the name didn’t matter for whether a meeting was set up. It was only among Associate Professors that “Alex” had a better shot of actually scheduling a meeting than “Xian.” At this time, though, it’s not clear why the bias would only be specific to a certain level of professorship.

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