Ask a Sociologist: Jennifer Lee on Naming Success
Editors note: We asked friend-of-Contexts Jennifer Lee to do something that most sociologists are terrified of doing: give advice. Sociologists do a lot of research that help us understand how the world works, but too many are afraid of taking the short if scary step from “this is why the world is the way it is” to “and this is what you could do.” We hope Lee’s bravery will inspire other sociologists to apply their research to pressing questions! As always, email us or find us on Twitter to invite a question of your own.
– Syed Ali and Philip Cohen
“I’m Asian. If I want my kids to get ahead in this country, should I change their Asian-sounding last name?”
Q: I’m a second-generation Indian Muslim, married to a White woman. We both work in professional jobs. My kids, who look kind of nondescript tan and not Indian-looking at all, have my last name, Ali. To help the kids get into selective colleges and ultimately get great jobs, would it be better to change their last names to their mother’s “American” name (Pollard), hyphenate (Pollard-Ali or Ali-Pollard), or just keep Ali?
A: I understand your concern about wanting to provide the best educational and occupational opportunities for your children, and leveraging any advantages you may have to do that, including possibly changing your children’s surname. People use surnames to gauge race, ethnicity, and national origin, even if they’re not accurate identifiers. Despite the inaccuracy, you recognize that the surname you choose to give your children affects the assumptions that others make about them, so essentially you’re asking what surname will accord them the greatest advantages in life.Before I continue, allow me to state at the outset that sociological research consistently shows that the strongest predictor of a child’s educational and occupational attainment is his or her parents’ education and occupation. That you and your wife are college-educated professionals makes it highly likely that your children will reproduce your status. So the name you choose for your children will be less consequential than the class resources that they are fortunate to have.
This isn’t to say that names don’t matter. Research also shows that people make assumptions about others and also about themselves based on their surname. For example, having an Italian surname makes you more likely to identify as Italian, feel more Italian, and have an affinity toward other Italians, even if you aren’t sure of your ethnic background. Sociologists Herbert Gans and Mary Waters refer to this as “symbolic ethnicity” because it is costless, voluntary, and fun for European Americans to consider themselves “ethnic” rather than just American.
Non-European surnames, however, are not costless. In audit studies, researchers show that employers are less likely to interview a job applicant with an African-American-sounding name (such as Malik or Jerome) even when he exhibits the same characteristics as an applicant with a White-sounding name (such as Thomas or David). Research also shows that professors are least likely to return e-mail messages when the sender has an Asian ethnic name, and professors with Asian ethnic names receive the poorest student teaching evaluations.
But what about college admissions specifically? There is a perception among some Asian American parents that their children must pay an “Asian tax” when applying to the most selective universities, meaning that they have to have higher SAT scores and grades to be admitted at the same rate as their White, African-American, and Latino peers. In their study of the most selective schools in the United States, sociologists Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton found that Asian-American applicants had higher SAT scores than other students, but they also stipulated that they could not conclude that Asian-American applicants experience racial bias in the admissions process because there are many variables that their study did not measure. College admissions officers consider more than just test scores and grades when making decisions, as they should.
Moreover, race and ethnicity are only one of a host of factors that universities consider when making decisions about admissions. They also consider whether you are the first in your family to attend college, whether you come from a state where few applicants apply, whether you have unique talents and skills, and whether you are a legacy (meaning that one of your parents is an alum), among many others. In fact, applicants get a much larger boost from their legacy status than their race or ethnicity. So while there may be rumors of an “Asian tax,” there is no concrete evidence that it exists or that Asian-American applicants are disadvantaged in the college admissions process because of their racial status.
In sum, regardless of what name you give your children (Ali, Pollard, Ali-Pollard, or Pollard-Ali), your children will likely follow your and your wife’s footsteps, attend a selective college, and become professionals—because you have given them the class resources to achieve this.
Jennifer Lee is in the sociology department at University of California, Irvine. She is the author most recently of The Asian American Achievement Paradox (with Min Zhou), and is an expert on all things immigration. She tweets at @JLeeSoc.