Could Having an American-Sounding Name be the Difference Between Life and Death?

What’s in a name? According to new research on the perception of immigrant identity, quite a lot. The Atlantic details how a recent study, titled “Your Name is Your Lifesaver: Anglicization of Names and Moral Dilemmas in a Trilogy of Transportation Accidents,” used experiments to reveal how native-born Americans react more favorably to immigrants who adopt Anglo names. Moreover, this preference is not a recent phenomenon. It is substantiated by data from over a century ago, revealing how deep rooted our biases are against cultures and customs we deem unfamiliar.

The study is the brainchild of Xian Zhao, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, and Monica Biernat, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas who also serves as Zhao’s academic advisor. Zhao, who is an immigrant, became interested in studying names after several of his relatives changed their traditional Chinese monikers to assimilate into U.S. culture. One particularly illuminating experiment conducted by Zhao and Biernat involved asking 850 white American citizens to imagine a runaway train about to kill five people tied to the tracks. In the hypothetical scenario, the test subjects were given the option of pulling a lever to divert the train, which would save the group of five but kill one person trapped on another track. A troubling pattern began to develop as the experiment progressed: the subjects were 8-to-10 percent more likely to divert the train and kill the individual with a traditional Chinese name as opposed to the Anglo name of Mark.

The results of Zhao and Biernat’s study were not an anomaly. Previous research conducted by the pair determined that white college professors were less likely to respond to an eMailed request from a Chinese student who introduced her/himself as Xian than they were to the same student who went by Alex. Similar studies suggest that immigrants themselves are all too aware of the prejudices that their ethnic names can conjure, and have taken steps to anglicize their identities for generations to assimilate and gain a financial foothold in the United States. A recent paper published in the American Sociological Review that examined naming patterns of first-generation Americans in the early 20th century found that sons of immigrant fathers who were given ethnic names earned substantially less money per year than their Anglo-named counterparts. [See American Immigrants and the Dilemma of ‘White Sounding’ Name, by Joe Pinsker, The Atlantic, 03.Jan.2019.]

Xenophobia in the U.S. isn’t always blatant threats and shouted slurs. Sometimes it takes a more insidious form, manifesting in the silent aggression of preconceptions and prejudice based on something as arbitrary as a name. As numerous data sources seem to show, this jingoistic undercurrent has been running through our culture since immigrants first made their way to our shores. And while we’ve certainly made strides over the centuries towards compassion and inclusion, it’s evident that immigrants still contend with a dark side to the American dream that they journey here to pursue.


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