In the United States, model minority status has often served as a bridge to whiteness, a stepping stone a particular ethnic identity must occupy for a time before blending into the white collective. For certain groups however, model minoritism seems perpetual. In part because of global tensions, Asian Americans, and, to a lesser extent, Jewish Americans, have inhabited this model minority position, having struggled against biases of race and religion, respectively, to gain economic and meritocratic adjacency to an overwhelmingly white and Christian ruling class. For both ethnic identities, decades of assimilatory work, a willingness to embrace neoliberal principles of individualism and traditionalism, and a physical proximity to whiteness have made “model” status possible.
One facet of this assimilation involved the process of changing overtly ethnic surnames, done most famously by Jewish immigrants looking to escape oppressive eastern European attitudes towards the Jewish faith on the shores of Ellis Island. For Asian immigrants, this practice was not quite so common. Historically, however, both Asian and Jewish Americans have been known to adopt Westernized first names, whether in place of or alongside an ethnic given name for public and professional use in order to offer proof of “Americanness,” and therefore, personhood. Rooted in the assimilatory desires of model minority groups, these naming patterns only give the illusion of assimilation and lend themselves to new forms of stereotyping. Both mandatory and othering for contemporary Asian and Jewish Americans, they reveal the precariousness of the model minorities’ status as Americans and as people.
Though the practice of renaming appears to be the natural mandate of ethnic assimilation, patterns have emerged from this practice among both ethnic groups. As a result, certain names have become so strongly favored by Asian and Jewish Americans so as to be hallmarks of these cultures. A blog post published to Harvard’s Social Science Statistics Blog in 2009 found that a particular set of anglicized names were more common among Chinese Americans than any other group in Boston. The most popular of these names were David, Andrew, and Eric among men, and Amy, Jennifer, and Alice among women. In 2005, the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that Emily was the most popular name for Asian Americans in New York City, while biblical names Esther, Grace, and Hannah were most popular among Korean-American girls. The same data found that Asian American first names “lag [in] mainstream America, with last year’s top 10 list of Asian-American baby names filled with names that hit their overall peaks a generation ago: Jason, Brian, Eric, Michelle, Tiffany, Nicole, Amy and Kelly.” While the white majority of American parents control and construct the hierarchy of names, Asian American parents scramble in droves to conform to standards that have already been abandoned. There is a sad symbolism to this game of catch-up, a sense of sprinting after an ideal that is perpetually out of reach. Thus, these white names lose their whiteness, and instead adopt a certain amount of Asianness, which offers significantly fewer assimilatory advantages.
A similar trend of cultural compromise can be found among Jewish Americans. A collection of 1,500 Jewish naturalization records from twentieth century Brooklyn reveal that over 70% sought to actively Americanize their personal name. In many cases, a number of Yiddish and Hebrew names were consolidated under the umbrella of just one anglicized name. Much like with the names found popular among Chinese Americans, when not Biblical, Jewish names typically became cognates or names with phonetic similarities to the original. For example, Khane, Raytse, Rifke, Rokhl, and Royze all became some variation of Rachel. These patterns aren’t inherently problematic, and, in a sense, indicate a contemporary multiculturalism that clearly recognizes Asian Americanism and Jewish Americanism as their own social cultures. However, the act of Americanizing names in the first place is rooted in the belief that those that possess ethnic names are inherently less valuable than those that don’t.
In his book Character and Person, John Frow outlines the relationship between names and social standing by saying that “the act of renaming signals a change of social status.” For example, the custom of a bride taking on her husband’s surname presumably elevates her social status. In stark contrast, the renaming process that often accompanied slavery was a way of signifying a lower social status, particularly because that name was selected for the enslaved individual. The ritual of selecting Americanized names can be seen as containing elements of both processes. In theory, those with formerly ethnic names have ascended to a higher social plane, but they have done so only to the degree that an inherently white, Anglo-Saxon system will allow.
In examining the way ethnic names are treated in the United States, it becomes clear how given names have come to connote eurocentrism as a means of cultural validation. Frow asserts that names “…inscribe us in the social order, tying bodies to language to make us recognizable as persons or non-persons,” that in assigning names, we assign personhood as well. The United States dialectic hierarchy clearly prizes English above other, “ethnic” tongues. As a result, to have an American name is to be not only more American, but more of a person.
An experiment done by Xian Zhao and Monica Biernat at the University of Kansas had 850 white American subjects ponder a trolley problem. In this problem, subjects could choose to pull a lever to redirect a trolley heading towards five helpless individuals to instead kill just one person tied to a different track. Throughout the experiment, the potential trolley victims would be introduced in one of three ways—a white man named Mark, an Asian immigrant named Mark, or an Asian immigrant named Xian. While only 68-70% of people opted to hit either Mark, 78% of people chose to hit Xian. At least in this example, a Xian of any race is worth intrinsically less than a Mark. To exist in America with an ethnic name is to be systemically dehumanized.
In attempting to manifest good futures for their children, those with Asian and Jewish American names become forcibly collectivized. “Kevin Nguyen,” for example, a popular Vietnamese American name, has come to represent what is essentially an archetype for a specific subset of Vietnamese American males, one that enjoys a wealthy lifestyle marked by frequenting music festivals and boba tea shops. Though Kevin Nguyen is not the only archetype the internet has granted a name, he stands alone in that he is immediately and indisputably racialized by the addition of a surname. When a number of Kevin Nguyens were interviewed about the archetype for Vice, some confessed to being consistently confused for other Kevin Nguyens, especially online. While there are playful elements to Nguyen’s character, like his penchant for pricy sportswear and the Lexus he drives to school, these sitcom-esque details distract from the micro-aggressive undertones of such a stereotype. Kevin Nguyen, with his stereotypical short stature, wealthy background, and mannerisms pilfered from the Black community, could be construed as a contemporary incarnation of fear-mongering Yellow Peril descriptions of Asian Americans, wherein different Asian ethnicities were compared and criticized for stereotypical features and dispositions. Like those caricatures, Kevin Nguyen symbolizes mistrust and unreliability, qualities that white America has long projected onto the Asian American diaspora and other minority groups. As long as parents still desire personhood and success for their children, the name Kevin Nguyen will be reproduced, and so too will be this new perilous character that embodies popular biases against the Asian American community.
The same can be said about the Jewish American Princess (JAP), who has no particular name, but is often called Becky, Sarah, or another anglicized Hebrew name. The JAP has history dating back to the 1950s, an era that saw many Jewish families achieving economic success and solidifying their position as model minorities. Again disguised by endearing details of artful accessorization and a love for trend, the JAP also represents harmful generalizations about Jewish Americans, with her excessive displays of “daddy’s money” stemming from outdated perceptions of the shrewd, money-hoarding Jew. In Jamie Lauren Keiles’ personal account and dissection of the JAP trope, she seamlessly swaps out the name of a JAP she once knew for the pseudonym “Sophie Bernstein,” effectively demonstrating that the JAP has many names, all interchangeable with one another. Becky-Sarah-Sophie is an extension of such a character—a feminized, juvenile side of the selfish, miserly coin. Like Kevin Nguyen, the JAP has become a particular archetype of ethnic-American. Both terms call a racialized picture to mind, neither of which can be considered positive. Thus, the humanizing purpose of an Americanized name is flawed in the case of the model minority, as it paves the way for repurposed stereotypes. Though Kevin Nguyen and the JAP represent extremes of potentially harmful collectivization brought about by model minority naming patterns, the adverse effects of “model minority names” are not limited to these instances.
Model minority names damage the collective self-esteem of both Jewish and Asian Americans as they make fruitless the pursuit of ethnic assimilation, while also impeding individual expression. From this, a cycle emerges, where the same Americanized names are circulated time after time. Though a Mark is always worth more than a Xian from the American perspective, if enough Asian American Marks come to exist, in time they will become known as another iteration of Xian. Meanwhile, as dominant cultures continue to name their children in increasingly unorthodox ways, it is possible that even “standard” names will become more racialized, and names like Mark, too, will lose their humanizing power.
Myths surrounding the assimilatory work of names simplify the decades of active effort toward assimilation that has allowed model minorities to be socially mobile in the United States. This is not to say that the anglicized name has no benefits; in the short term, at least, it improves a model minority’s social status beyond that of an ethnic name. Rather, the power these names hold are conditional and flimsy, the ethnic subject more capable of racializing the anglicized name than the name is capable of anglicizing the subject.
Perhaps there is a bright side to this purgatory of cultural acceptance that surrounds the model minority. With time, these name-changing practices have become rarer as new people immigrate to the United States, with some families who traveled to America decades ago choosing to revert to the ethnic names their ancestors had felt compelled to modify. There is still significant value in the partial personhood afforded to model minorities—after all, when confronted with the impending threat of a speeding trolley, Mark has a 10% better chance of survival than his friend Xian. However, in the face of record violence against Jewish and Asian Americans, the harsh conditionality of model minoritism is becoming increasingly apparent. While embracing ethnic names cannot remedy the corporeal and institutional horrors of bigotry, such a movement may at least help to heal the internal traumas of a century of pseudo-Americanization and prevent the perpetuation of specific and easily digestible ethnic caricatures.