Expectant parents know the importance of their baby’s name. They spend hours combing through books and consulting friends, trying to find the perfect name that incorporates their families’ roots and reflects their hopes for their child’s future.
However, if you’re an immigrant or a person of ethnic origin, you know that living in Canada with a “funny” name can result in discrimination. When we were kids, it meant getting teased on the playground. As adults, it means a more subtle kind of prejudice, often occurring in the workforce.
A recent joint University of Toronto and Ryerson University study found that when it comes to jobs requiring a university degree, Asian-named applicants have a 32.6 percent lower rate of interview selection when compared to Anglo-named applicants with equivalent Canadian qualifications. This trend was observed independently of the skill level required for the position and the size of the hiring company.
When I posted this news story on Facebook, my friend Hsiu-Yan Chan, a Calgary-based engineer, was the first to comment. “This hits pretty close to home,” she wrote. Unlike my parents, Chan’s parents gave her a distinctly Chinese first name.
“I always knew it was my turn on roll call when the substitute teacher would awkwardly pause,” she remembers.
While she is proud to have a Chinese name, Chan knows that it has also presented her with more challenges. “I know that I have had to work harder to get the same opportunities compared to others who have more common ‘Canadian’ names. I know when somebody sees my name, they instantly see somebody ‘different.’”
To fit in and to make it easier for English speakers, people have long anglicized ethnic-sounding names to make them more palatable. Sometimes it’s a small change like changing the suffix of a last name like “Steinweg” to “Steinway.” Other times people adopt a given name completely different from their original name, like “Joe” or “Mike.”
Either way, their names are white-washed.
For decades, aspiring actors and musicians have been editing their names to be more “marketable.” They know anything that’s not anglicized, or at least edited to be easier to read or say, will be discriminated against by producers, agents or potential fans.
Peter Gene Hernandez didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a Latin singer, so he became Bruno Mars. Actor and writer Vera Mindy Chokalingam shortened her name to be Mindy Kaling, and years earlier, Chan Kong-sang became action star Jackie Chan.
Some might criticize these performers for diluting their names to appease the masses. However, some may not realize the masses—whether they’re conscious of it or not—are prejudiced.
If we can’t trust hiring managers to interview a qualified candidate just because their name looks Asian, it’s not a stretch to assume that “‘Uptown Funk’ by Peter Gene Hernandez” would have never been a number-one hit.
For me, the fear of discrimination based on my name takes place not at work, but at the border. When it was time for me to update my Canadian passport a few years ago, I was given the option to include my middle name, Rashida. It’s an Arabic name that means righteous and wise.
I considered the political climate, how Muslims can be received at borders and decided to remove the name from my passport. Now in Trump’s America, I’m very glad I made that choice.
I have complicated feelings about Islam and haven’t set foot in a >mosque since my grandmother’s death 10 years ago, but I still resent the fact that fear of discrimination fueled this decision. My name, its heritage and meaning ties me to the generations of Muslim Malaysians from my mother’s family around the world. I chose to delete this part of me from an official document due to fear of discrimination.
I asked Chan whether she ever considered changing her name. “Personally, it doesn’t feel authentic,” she says. “My name reflects my Chinese background.”
Her experience with her name is something she has considered when naming her daughter. “When we named our daughter, we gave her an anglicized first name and a Chinese middle name—it seemed like the right balance between recognizing our roots and helping her navigate in the future.”
I’d like to think that by the time my future daughter applies for her first job, she will live in a world where she doesn’t need to worry about this kind of prejudice. Maybe I’ll name her Jamila, after my grandmother.
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