During dinner with a social group, a gentleman, who has a female sounding name, mentioned how it can lead to confusion when applying for jobs. Here, the potential interviewer will expect a woman but ends up meeting a man. No big deal, right?
Then the conversation shifted to ethnic-specific last names. One person pointed out that it is better for someone with a ‘different’ last name to use a generic ‘white’ surname (for example: Anderson or Smith). The purpose is meant to get the person applying passed any initials prejudices that a potential interviewer may have that would deter someone from being called in for the initial meeting.
I have seen this tactic described in a job search book. The author used examples where names (first and last) were slightly altered to sound more North American. While the author is white, he adds that this is a suggestion, and only to be followed if a person feels comfortable. I know of people from China and Iraq who use English first names but keep their original last name. I understand this, as the first name is said so often. From there, people have short forms or nicknames (mine is RFT). However, keeping a surname is important and totally eliminating traces of ethnicity is not the answer.
In principle, everyone should be given a fair chance based on their name. I realize that there can be hidden racism in the workplace. However, conforming to a perceived comfortable ‘norm’ and using ‘North American’ last names is giving up too much. By doing this, a person would be giving up a sense of their own identity. But more importantly, it will prevent long-term progress of allowing people from various backgrounds to be, not only acceptable, but unexceptionable (nice word that I’m borrowing from linguist Steven Pinker).
In Barack Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father, he describes this frustration as, “the minority assimilated into the dominant culture, not the other way around. Only white culture could be neutral and objective”. He argues that minorities were never seen as individuals. While, his name may not sound ‘American’, by becoming President, his name being connect to USA can only help shape the future views of different cultures achieving in North America.
However, lots of celebrities use ‘stage names’. Nicholas Cage was once Nicholas Coppola and Natalie Portman was born as Neta-Lee Hershlag. The difference is that these people are using names for a very wide audience to become familiar with them. Jamie Foxx claimed on a late night interview (probably Jay Leno again) that his family refers to him as Eric. When most people are applying for a job, their audience is also intimate. Most people don’t deal with a nation-wide fan base, but rather, real peers and family, like Foxx and his loved ones. Entertainers, creators and artists are known for their art and creations for the public. They are seen to many as a ‘version’ of his or her real private self.
With that said, actor Leonardo DiCaprio refused to change his name to Lenny Williams (as his early agent requested since his real name sounded too ethnic) and Indian-born director M. Night Shyamalan kept his real last name (where his name is actually the selling point in his films’ advertising). Both seem to be recognised just fine in their respective fields.
Another acceptable name change is embracing an identity, not hiding or giving in to the norms. During the summer, I saw rock band Against Me perform headed my singer Laura Jane Grace, formerly Thomas Jane Gabel (oh, and formerly a man). She knew her true and authentic self, and made changes that make her comfortable and proud of her new image.
Don’t lost your true identity to trick or sneak your way into the workplace. If an employer does refuses to accept people with foreign names, it will be the company’s loss. More ‘different’ names (like Barack Obama and M. Night Shyamalan) need to make an impact in the workforce in any industry until they don’t seem ‘different’ any longer.