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What's in a Name?

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People have always mispronounced my name. It’s something I embrace as a fact of life, in a country where having a non-anglicized name is not among the majority. However, my name is relatively short, and I know that the mispronunciations I endure are nothing compared to what some of my family and friends with longer and more “difficult” names experience. Many people I know have shortened their names, forsaken the more difficult part of their first name, or chosen to go by an “American” name to protect against the social repercussions of having a “confusing,” non-anglicized name. Our country today is a melting pot of culture, with a large and rapidly growing minority population. Embracing “non-American” names is a part of being American, and is an important piece of preventing implicit social and racial bias, and in helping individuals maintain their identity.

The population of our country is rapidly changing, with ethnic minorities making up large groups. According to the 2020 U.S. census, 61.6% of the U.S. population identified as “white alone.” The next largest group identified in the census was Hispanic, comprising 18.7% of the U.S. population, followed by Black alone, comprising 12.4% of the population. Asian alone was the next largest group, comprising 6% of the population, with the remaining population consisting of multiracial, Native American, native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and other ethnicities. The breakdown of the U.S. census reminds us that almost 40% of the U.S. population consists of minority groups, with minority populations rapidly growing throughout the country. Additionally, the “white” category does not consist solely of European Americans with anglicized names, but also includes people from Russia, Greece, the Middle East, and from many other countries and continents. Being “American” no longer means belonging to a certain race or ethnic group. Being American means something different for everybody, but for me, it means being proud to belong to this country where we embrace and celebrate people from many different backgrounds, and allow individuals to maintain their cultural identity while celebrating being a part of this great country.

Studies have shown that people with non-anglicized names are less likely to receive job interviews but more likely be skipped over for promotions and face discrimination in a myriad of social situations. One study showed that job applicants with Asian (Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and others) or non-anglicized names were 28% less likely to receive job interviews than similar applications with anglicized names. Another study was performed where 5,000 similar resumes were sent out, with 50% having stereotypically “white” sounding names and 50% having stereotypically African American sounding names. Results showed that the applications with African American sounding names were 50% less likely to receive a call back. A psychological study where participants decided who to save in hypothetical life-or-death scenarios showed that people with anglicized, non-Asian, or non-Arab names were more likely to be saved. These studies demonstrate that there is often implicit bias, and sometimes explicit bias, in how non-anglicized names are perceived in society. People with non-anglicized names can be subjected to less opportunity, and in a country where we encourage equality and diversity, we must all check our own biases against names. 

How can we in our daily lives practice less bias toward names? The first thing we can do is work on our pronunciation of names. The way we speak a language and the way we pronounce words is often a function of familiarity, and in the U.S. today, we are still most familiar with anglicized names. However, when learning a new word, we often read the word slowly and take our time attempting to pronounce the word. When pronouncing a non-familiar name, many people make the mistake of rushing through the name and making up a name or word. Most people with non-anglicized names understand that you may never have seen their name before, but taking the time to read the name and attempting to pronounce it correctly, rather than rushing through it and making up letters or words that aren’t there, shows effort, which most people appreciate. 

Secondly, when we are given a position of power or are in the position to make a decision, taking a second to analyze your perception of a person and questioning that perception might be helpful in dealing with implicit or explicit bias. 

And finally, in simply paying more attention to the changing demographic and social fabric of this country, taking the time to remember names, words, or cultural practices different from our own, and making people feel safe and welcome in their own identity, will help eventually bring about needed change in the way we deal with people with non-anglicized names.

Dr. Rabia Karani is a vitreoretinal surgery fellow at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute. She finished her ophthalmology residency at Columbia University in NYC and is a native of Houston. Her interests include public health ophthalmology, prevention of chronic diseases such as diabetes, and using imaging and technology to further develop treatments for retinal disease. Outside of work, she enjoys exploring museums and cities, learning about nature and animals, and traveling. Dr. Karani was a 2022–2023 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.

Illustration by April Brust

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