Name Stereotypes: Why I’m glad my name isn’t Kim, Lee or Park
By Alicia Chon
I recently watched a documentary titled The Grace Lee Project, where a Korean-American filmmaker named Grace Lee from Missouri investigated why people assume that most Grace Lees are ‘reserved, dutiful, piano-playing overachievers.’ The film explored the importance of a name and the stereotypes that are correspondingly cast as a result.
I experienced this prejudice first-hand when a new acquaintance asked me rather bluntly, “So what kind of Asian are you?” How I felt when he asked that question can only be compared to the feeling of someone cutting my passport into pieces, throwing it into the trash and walking away. These emotions resurfaced when I later flicked through my Instagram news feed and saw that a distinguished arts magazine had mistakenly identified Chinese model Xiao Wen Ju as Fei Fei Sun. An honest mistake? Sure, but the two women are not identical. To me, they look nothing alike and the only similarity is that they are Asian. But for others, it is likely harder to differentiate the two. This underscores the issue that if your name reveals cues of your race, people will lump you into a broad categorization and assume biases based on your ethnicity.
That’s why I’m glad my last name isn’t Kim, Park, Lee or any of the common Korean last names from which people draw up stereotypes. I’m a proud Korean-American, but having a more ‘unique’ Asian name has served me well. My first name — Alicia — which my father teases is a random name he chose simply because it was in the beginning of the “baby names book,” is in fact a familiar Hispanic name. My last name — Chon — isn’t uncommon in Korea but certainly doesn’t surpass ‘Kim.’ That means that when I apply to internships and submit my resume, people may not assume that I spent my childhood with my nose in a textbook and played the piano growing up simply because of my Asian-sounding name. (As it turns out, I did play classical piano for ten years, but that’s beside the point.)
According to a study conducted by Katherine L. Milkman of Wharton, Modupe Akinola of Columbia, and Dolly Chugh of NYU in July 2014, there is a high level of racial bias against Asians and Indians based on people’s names specifically. Professors were contacted by fictional prospective students to discuss research opportunities before applying to a doctoral program. Each email was the same; the independent variable were the students’ names, which were randomly assigned to signal gender and race. For example: Meredith Roberts, Ling Wong, and Lamar Washington. The results concluded that faculty ignored requests from women and Asian minorities at a higher rate than requests from Caucasian males, and the discrepancy is higher in private institutions with higher-paying disciplines.
Let’s talk hypothetically. If your name is Sara Park, common stereotypes may include that you have a laudable academic standing, spent more of your childhood with tutors than friends, play the violin or cello, and have plans to attend b-school or pursue a Ph.D at some point in the future. Most of the above will be true, but that is also true for people of all races. What people often forget is that there is more to a person the simplistic assumptions that can apply to people of all races. When I think of my Korean friends, I think of a national-level water polo player, a wrestler, a photographer, and an archeologist. I don’t think of a diligent student who spent his or her youth cramming for the SATs.
There’s more to a person than his or her name. Look under a veneer, because while you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, you also shouldn’t judge a book by its title.
This story appeared previously in HuffingtonPost.
Alicia Chon is a student at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania ’16. She is concentrating in Decision Processes and minoring in East Asian Studies. She also runs The Raw Book (therawbook.com) in her spare time.
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on December 17th, 2014 at 8:43 pm
This isn’t only true for Asians. It is one of the many reasons I was always glad my maiden name wasn’t a typical Hispanic last name and why I stayed away from Spanish names for my daughter, as her last name is very Hispanic. I don’t want people to make assumptions about her based on her name.
on December 17th, 2014 at 9:34 pm
I am not Asian, but I have witnessed this sort of thing firsthand.
I was among a group of about 10 interns at a large Midwest newspaper in 2004. The intern coordinator — presumably the person who knew the new interns best — introduced us all at a huge staff meeting. The coordinator “swapped” the names of the two Asian interns, who looked nothing alike. One was Vietnamese-American. The other was Korean-American. I was too shy and scared to correct the coordinator, as were the two young Asian women.
I have a friend named Mary C-H-1-N-D. She is an accomplished media photographer.
Mary is white, blonde and aggressive. She says strangers frequently seem disappointed or confused when she shows up to assignments, often saying they were looking for a “little Asian girl.”
So many stereotypes.
on December 18th, 2014 at 1:10 pm
(Last week I was watching the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and it took 5 minutes of racking my brain to figure out if a model was Sui He or Fei Fei Sun. But Xiao Wen Ju has such a distinctive look that I don’t know how people could confuse her with anyone else!)
I have a “unique” name (Kaprice) and an English last name that sounds Slovenian or Russian or something. People make it sound more exotic than it really is. People have more trouble with my simple surname than my first name. What with these Kamryn’s and (kringeworthy) K-izations of names in America I don’t think I have to fret too much about my weird yet pretty K name. On paper I don’t know what one would make of my name. I don’t think people can guess my race until they see me in person. But imagine an average white girl named an Arab name like Khadijah! I bet she would get double takes and dirty looks unfortunately 🙁 but when I hear Aaliyah and Alia et al that could be any American girl these days. I’ve learned not to assume things about people just because of their name. I used to get shocked at other ethnicities than black girls getting named India but now I’m seeing it everywhere. British model Suki Waterhouse’s name intrigued me. You wouldn’t expect that from a British girl would you! I would think Lucy, Sophie, Matilda, Maisie, the like.
Or Pablo Schrieber from Orange is the New Black isn’t Spanish at all. He was just name after a poet Pablo Neruda.
And I won’t even get started on all these kids named Luca and Isabella now.
Every name has a story.
on December 18th, 2014 at 5:06 pm
This is a great post. I’d love to read more sociology/name type posts from Nameberry. I’d love to read more in-depth pieces about African American naming practices, or the differences in naming patterns into different Latin American countries (and by extension in different Hispanic American communities). I also find Haitian names really fascinating and would love to see a guest post from someone who knows a lot about them.
on March 1st, 2015 at 11:50 am
This is so very true. My maiden name is Lee, and my middle name was my mom’s maiden name Kim and growing up I was always stereotyped. I was always expected to know the answer and get an A on every test and project. I loved and would love to come across more pieces like this on Nameberry.
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