I dont blame stars for whitewashing their names to get on lots of minorities do it in the jobs market. But there is a moral case against this
Its hard to become a superhero when you have a super-ethnic name. Just ask Chloe Bennet, who stars in the TV series Marvels Agents of SHIELD. Bennet, who was born Chloe Wang, recently made headlines for defending her decision to anglicise her name. The actor made it clear it wasnt a lack of pride in her Asian heritage, but rather industry prejudice that prompted her to trade Wang for Bennet. Hollywood is racist and wouldnt cast me with a last name that made them uncomfortable, Bennet announced on Instagram this week. Changing my last name doesnt change the fact that my BLOOD is half-Chinese, she wrote. It means I had to pay my rent.
Bennet isnt the first celebrity to have whitened their name in the pursuit of fame; there is a long history of entertainers adopting anglicised public personas. Sir Ben Kingsley, for example, was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji. As soon as I changed my name, I got the jobs, he said in a Radio Times interview.
Kingsley changed his name in the 1960s; over half a century later, little appears to have changed. Once Chloe Wang became Bennet, she too got the jobs. The first audition I went on after I changed my name, I got booked, she told the Daily Beast last year. Thats a pretty clear little snippet of how Hollywood works. Kal Penn, one of the most famous Indian-American actors in the world, is another little snippet of how Hollywood works. Penn was born Kalpen Suresh Modi. He said that after anglicising his name, his audition callbacks soared.
There are numerous examples of celebrities choosing to whiten their names. Charlie Sheen was born Carlos Irwin Estvez. Mindy Kaling was born Vera Mindy Chokalingam. George Michael was born Georgios Panayiotou. Bruno Mars was born Peter Gene Hernandez. Thats to name a few.
There are also a lot of Jewish celebrities who have opted for more Christian-sounding surnames. Ralph Lifshitz became Ralph Lauren. Allen Stewart Konigsberg became Woody Allen. Lawrence Harvey Zeigler became Larry King. Jonathan Leibowitz became Jon Stewart.
Not every celebrity who adopts a whiter or Waspier name attributes the change to circumventing prejudice quite as bluntly as Bennet did. Often, they will just say something along the lines of they changed their name to make it simpler. But simpler is often code for more marketable to white people. After all, do you honestly think Ralph Lifshitz polo shirts would have become the off-duty uniform of affluent, Aryan America? Or that Charlie Sheen would have had quite as winning a career as Carlos Estvez?
Of course, many white celebrities have also changed their names to make themselves more marketable. Marilyn Monroe was baptised Norma Jeane Baker. Elton John was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight. Vin Diesel was born Mark Sinclair. However, you rarely find someone changing a white-sounding name to something more ethnic-sounding because they think it will give them a leg-up on the fame ladder.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. One of those is Calvin Harris, a DJ/producer/ex-boyfriend of Taylor Swift. Harris was born Adam Wiles but reportedly changed his name because he wanted to sound blacker. (Having a hard time seeing how Calvin Harris sounds racially different from Adam Wiles? Dont worry, youre not alone.) In a 2009 interview, the Scottish musician said: My first single was more of a soul track, and I thought Calvin Harris sounded a bit more racially ambiguous. I thought people might not know if I was black or not. After that, I was stuck with it.
Calvin Harriss semantic blackface is in poor taste but, then again, so is most of his music. Its also, as previously noted, very much the exception to the trend of celebrity name-whitening. Its not just those in showbiz who whitewash their names in the hope of economic gain. It has become a fairly standard practice across the broader job market, as minorities attempt to circumvent institutional racism.
A 2016 study that looked at the US labour market, for example, found that minorities who modify their CVs to remove information that hints at their ethnicity (a practice known as rsum whitening) are more than twice as likely to get a follow-up interview as those who dont. The study, published in the Administrative Science Quarterly journal, also found resume whitening is common. The researchers spoke to 59 Asian and African Americans aged 18 to 25: 36% admitted to whitening their CVs, and two-thirds said they knew somebody who did.
There is clearly a business case for minorities to whiten their name and many are doing so. Ive often thought about it myself. But what about the moral case? You are being complicit in the same institutionalised racism you are attempting to escape. You are helping to contribute to the idea that the Bennets of the world are normal and the Wangs are somehow flawed. Like it or not, youre sending a message to everyone else with an ethnic name that theres something wrong with them. Ive spent most of my life hating my name and apologising to people for the fact that its different. Its only in the last few years that I have stopped feeling my name is something I should apologise for, and started embracing it.
To be clear: I dont begrudge the likes of Bennet changing their name. We all need to pay our rent. But we shouldnt have to do that by selling out our heritage or buying into a deeply flawed status quo.