American Immigrants and the Dilemma of ‘White-Sounding’ Names

First names can shape the way people are treated, and even their job prospects.

Children waving American flags and holding citizenship certificates
Children celebrate after becoming U.S. citizens in 2017. (Drew Angerer / Getty)

“As a foreigner in the U.S., since the first day I arrived,” says Xian Zhao, “I have been constantly asking myself this question: Should I adopt an Anglo name?”

Zhao, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, says that his cousin and his aunt changed their name from Pengyuan and Guiqing to Jason and Susan, respectively, upon moving to the U.S. Some of his grad-school peers made similar decisions, but after some deliberation while completing his Ph.D. in the U.S., he resolved to continue using his given first name, which means “significant” and “outstanding.” “Hearing people calling me Alex or Daniel doesn’t mean anything to me,” he told me.

The dilemma, though, inspired Zhao to study first names in an academic capacity, which he’s done with Monica Biernat, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas who was his Ph.D. advisor. Most recently, they looked at the relationship between someone’s first name and whether people would offer them help in “hypothetical life-and-death situations.”

In one experiment, Zhao and Biernat had participants—about 850 white American citizens recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, which researchers often use to pay subjects small sums in exchange for completing tasks—imagine the famous scenario of the “trolley problem,” in which an out-of-control train is about to run over five people on the tracks; pulling a lever to divert it would save them, but kill a helpless individual on another track. The identities of the five and the one were varied—for instance, the individual was referred to as either an Asian immigrant named Xian, an Asian immigrant named Mark, or a white male named Mark.

As is typical of trolley-problem studies, a majority of subjects said they’d pull the lever, but the name of the individual played a role in the decision. The shares of participants who decided to sacrifice the white Mark and the Asian Mark were about 68 percent and 70 percent, respectively; subjects were more likely to divert the train to hit Xian, which they chose to do 78 percent of the time.

Of course, there are limits to hypothetical ethical dilemmas (and to research conducted using Mechanical Turk), but these effects appear in the real world too. In previous research, Zhao and Biernat found that white professors were more likely to respond to an emailed request from a Chinese student when the student went by Alex, as opposed to Xian. And a separate paper found that Chinese job seekers received more favorable responses from employers when they went by anglicized names. (Other research has noted similar difficulties that arise for black job applicants.)

A lot of research on immigration and names examines the subject from an economic perspective. A 2016 paper in the American Sociological Review looked at the first names given to the generation that came after the wave of immigration to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. “Native-born sons of Irish, Italian, German, and Polish immigrant fathers who were given very ethnic names ended up in occupations that earned, on average, $50 to $100 less per year than sons who were given very ‘American’ names,” the researchers wrote. “This represented 2 to 5 percent of annual earnings.” (They determined the “ethnic-ness” or “American-ness” of a name based on how frequently it was given in each immigrant and native-born population at the time.)

Some of this effect, the researchers estimated, was due to class differences among parents (which remain a strong determinant of a child’s future job prospects), but most of it had to do with the symbolism of the name itself. Interestingly, the economic advantage that came with having a “more American” name still applied to people with surnames that clearly indicated their parents’ foreign origins. The researchers surmised that American-sounding first names, then, functioned more as a signal of “an effort to assimilate” than a means of “hiding one’s origins.”

Immigrants in that era frequently felt pressured to change their own first name. A separate study, also from 2016, found that “at any given time between 1900 and 1930,” about 77 percent of immigrants had an American-sounding first name, and it was the norm for them to have dropped their original name within a year of entering the U.S. There were economic overtones here too: Male immigrants were more likely to change their name if they lived in counties where other immigrants had trouble getting jobs.

Researchers in other countries, such as Germany and Sweden, have also used first names as a proxy for assimilation, and picked up on similar economic consequences. Three researchers in Europe estimated that in France, between 2003 and 2007, there would have been more than 50 percent more babies born with an Arabic name if there weren’t an economic penalty associated with having one.

There seems to be a pattern when it comes to immigrants’ decision to give their children “American-sounding” (which in this context, as in many others, is a sort of code for “whiter-sounding”) names. In 2009, the New York University sociologist Guillermina Jasso told The New York Times that “in general, the names immigrants give their children go through three stages—from names in the original language, to universal names, and finally to names in the destination-country language.” The reporter observed that as the proportion of Hispanic Americans who were born in the U.S. increased, the name José seemed to be declining in popularity.

But perhaps when discrimination against a certain ethnic group diminishes, there is an opportunity for a naming reversal. Historically, many Jews have changed their surnames—Larry King’s last name was originally Zeiger, and Jon Stewart’s was Leibowitz—but today, some are changing theirs to something more Jewish. In a 2014 article on shifting naming conventions, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz mentioned two American Jews who had, in an effort to honor their roots, changed their last names from Bush to Silberbusch and Reed to Safran. So maybe there’s a fourth stage: Once immigrant groups establish themselves in new countries, they feel they have room to celebrate the people who helped bring them to where they are now.