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Baby names: Should it matter if they indicate your race?

When my son was born, I didn’t think twice about choosing a white-sounding name for him. After all, I was named Katherine Mary Reynolds despite being half-Asian, so it almost seemed like a family tradition to have a secret Chinese name that wasn’t on the official birth certificate. (Mine is Xue Yi, which translates as snow harmony in honor of my mid-snowstorm birth.)

Just as when I was born, my grandmother gave our new baby a Chinese name that roughly translates as bright virtue: Ming De. Indeed, he’s grown into a stubbornly ethical 11-year old, with a strong sense of Chinese identity despite being three-quarters white. His two siblings also have unofficial Chinese names, sharing the second syllable but with different first characters, according to tradition.

As I’ve learned more about implicit bias and discrimination, I realize the advantage I’ve enjoyed, having a name that passes as Anglo and a face that is racially ambiguous. Some people who meet me in person believe I’m 100 percent white. (That’s led to some embarrassing incidents the few times they made snide comments about Asians to my face.)

I’ve avoided the subtle discrimination that years of sociological research have documented. These show that job applicants whose names signal race are less likely to succeed in the application process, especially those that “sound” African American. One landmark experiment found that resumés with names like Emily and Greg received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews than those with identical qualifications but “black-sounding” names like Lakisha and Jamal. Similar discrimination has been well-documented in access to housing, credit and consumer markets.

There are few parallels between the experience of being Asian-American and African-American in this country. Asians earn more, on average, than their white or black counterparts. Our ancestors immigrated to this country voluntarily, not in chains. Still, Asians also experience bias, and can lose out to white employees when it comes to jobs whose core tasks run counter to Asian stereotypes. For instance, Asian career paths often stall at the manager level, the so-called “bamboo ceiling,” because of notions that we aren’t forceful or strong enough to lead a team. There’s the recent disturbing news report on college counselors who advise high school seniors to downplay their Asian heritage on their applications to avoid being penalized.

Many of my non-white contemporaries have first names that could pass as white – Chinese named Emily, African Americans named Daniel and Hispanics named Mary. But I’ve noticed that as my friends are having children, many of them are reviving names that call to mind their cultural and ethnic roots.

They explain they want their children to be proud of their heritage, not feel it’s something to hide. They also hope in a decade or two, when our children are grown and applying for jobs, the world will be a more color blind place. In reality, name is only one aspect of identity. Even if your resumé slips through the racial bias filter, when you show up for the interview, your race is almost always evident. Wouldn’t you rather work for, or do business with, a company that doesn’t discriminate?

While my husband and I gave our child an Anglo first name, his middle name is a Chinese surname – my mother’s maiden name. It was important to me to keep that connection to my ancestors, and to send my son a message that I hope he identifies with Chinese culture.

It’s hard enough to find a baby name you and your spouse both like and doesn’t bring up unpleasant memories of a childhood bully or former romantic partner. We shouldn’t have to think about potential racial bias in adulthood. What I hope for my children is when it comes time for them to pick baby names for their offspring, racial and ethnic stigma won’t even be an issue.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an independent journalist based in Potomac, who covers work, parenting and education. She and her husband Brian have three children. Find her on Twitter at @KatherineLewis, Facebook and on the Web at Katherine R Lewis.

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