Sticks and Stones and Asian Last Names

“Stick and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me”
– A Children’s Rhyme

After The Wife and I got married, she said that she would change her last name.    She had a Filipino last name that didn’t look at all Asian – a person with that same last name could easily be white.  I told her that I didn’t really care and that she didn’t need to change her name.  Turns out that having Asian last name can have an impact.  NPR reports here that a Canadian study has shown that resumes with Asian last names sent to Canadian employers received fewer call backs than those with non-Asian names.

One criticism of this study is that it might not also apply to Americans, as it was based in Canada.  That is possible, but not likely.  This similar study shows that graduate students asking academics to meet in a week for mentoring help were much less likely to get a response if they were female, African American, or Asian names.  Those with Chinese names got the lowest response, with the exception if the professor addressed was also had a Chinese name.

Anne Curtis in 2013

You might wonder what Filipino last name would sound American.  One Filipino family that I know has the last name of Henson.  I went to a high school with white kids with the surname of Henson, but that Filipino family doesn’t look any part white.  Another example would be Filipino actress Anne Curtis.   Philippines history has led to all kinds of strange first names and a variety of last names.

What’s a Asian American or Asian Canadian person to do?  Changing one’s last name is an option, although an inconvenient one, that was actually suggested by Texas state representative Betty Brown. The Canadian study suggests that large organizations were less likely to discriminate, so applying to jobs at large organizations might reduce the chances of discrimination.  The study of professors suggests that urgency might eliminate discrimination, as the researchers found that asking for a meeting in a day (as opposed to a week) seemed to wipe out any discrimination.  Organizations can also try to reduce their own bias by hiring “blind,”  Using blind auditions (identity of performer not shown) has been shown to reduce gender bias in hiring orchestra members.

The Wife ended up using my last name, which is constantly mispronounced in English.  Even my own kids don’t say it right, being lazy and using the typical American pronunciation of it.   It is unique enough that it is hard to tell our ethnicity from the name.   I once hired an intern who told me that she and her advisor spent time trying to figure out what ethnicity I was.  We know that kids can make cruel fun of Asian last names.  It seems that even in adulthood, sticks and stones may break bones but names definitely can hurt.

<photo credit:  Renzelle Mae Abasolo by CC 2.0>

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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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