It’s hard to become a superhero when you have a super-ethnic name. Just ask Chloe Bennet, who stars in the TV series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Bennet, who was born Chloe Wang, recently made headlines for defending her decision to anglicise her name. The actor made it clear it wasn’t a lack of pride in her Asian heritage, but rather industry prejudice that prompted her to trade ‘Wang’ for ‘Bennet’. “Hollywood is racist and wouldn’t cast me with a last name that made them uncomfortable,” Bennet announced on Instagram last week. “Changing my last name doesn’t change the fact that my BLOOD is half-Chinese,” she wrote. “It means I had to pay my rent.”
Bennet isn’t the first celebrity to have whitened his or her 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. “That’s 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 Estevez. Mindy Kaling was born Vera Mindy Chokalingam. George Michael was born Georgios Panayiotou. Bruno Mars was born Peter Gene Hernandez. That’s to name a few.
There are some other celebrities who have also opted 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 the affluent, Aryan America? Or that Charlie Sheen would have had quite as “winning” a career as Carlos Estevez?
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”? Don’t worry, you’re 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 Harris’s semantic blackface is in poor taste but, then again, so is most of his music. It’s also, as previously noted, very much the exception to the trend of celebrity name-whitening. It’s 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 “resume whitening”) are more than twice as likely to get a follow-up interview as those who don’t. 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 per cent 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. I’ve 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, you’re sending a message to everyone else with an “ethnic” name that there’s something wrong with them. I’ve spent most of my life hating my name and apologising to people for the fact that it’s different. It’s 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 don’t begrudge the likes of Bennet changing their name. We all need to pay our rent. But we shouldn’t have to do that by selling out our heritage or buying into a deeply flawed status quo.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Arwa Mahdawi is a writer and brand strategist based in New York