Why I'm Glad My Last Name Isn't Kim, Lee or Park

That's why I'm glad my last name isn't Kim, Park, Lee, or any of the common Korean last names from which people draw up stereotypes. I'm a proud Korean-American, but having a more 'unique' Asian name has served me well.
12/09/2014 04:29 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

I recently watched a documentary titled The Grace Lee Project, where a Korean-American filmmaker named Grace Lee from Missouri investigated why people assume that most Grace Lees are 'reserved, dutiful, piano-playing overachievers.' The film explored the importance of a name and the stereotypes that are correspondingly cast as a result.

I experienced this prejudice first-hand when a new acquaintance asked me rather bluntly, "So what kind of Asian are you?" How I felt when he asked that question can only be compared to the feeling of someone cutting my passport into pieces, throwing it into the trash and walking away. These emotions resurfaced when I later flicked through my Instagram news feed and saw that a distinguished arts magazine had mistakenly identified Chinese model Xiao Wen Ju as Fei Fei Sun. An honest mistake? Sure, but the two women are not identical. To me, they look nothing alike and the only similarity is that they are Asian. But for others, it is likely harder to differentiate the two. This underscores the issue that if your name reveals cues of your race, people will lump you into a broad categorization and assume biases based on your ethnicity.

That's why I'm glad my last name isn't Kim, Park, Lee or any of the common Korean last names from which people draw up stereotypes. I'm a proud Korean-American, but having a more 'unique' Asian name has served me well. My first name -- Alicia -- which my father teases is a random name he chose simply because it was in the beginning of the "baby names book," is in fact a familiar Hispanic name. My last name -- Chon -- isn't uncommon in Korea but certainly doesn't surpass 'Kim.' That means that when I apply to internships and submit my resume, people may not assume that I spent my childhood with my nose in a textbook and played the piano growing up simply because of my Asian-sounding name. (As it turns out, I did play classical piano for ten years, but that's beside the point.)

According to a study conducted by Katherine L. Milkman of Wharton, Modupe Akinola of Columbia, and Dolly Chugh of NYU in July 2014, there is a high level of racial bias against Asians and Indians based on people's names specifically. Professors were contacted by fictional prospective students to discuss research opportunities before applying to a doctoral program. Each email was the same; the independent variable were the students' names, which were randomly assigned to signal gender and race. For example: Meredith Roberts, Ling Wong, and Lamar Washington. The results concluded that faculty ignored requests from women and Asian minorities at a higher rate than requests from Caucasian males, and the discrepancy is higher in private institutions with higher-paying disciplines.

Let's talk hypothetically. If your name is Sara Park, common stereotypes may include that you have a laudable academic standing, spent more of your childhood with tutors than friends, play the violin or cello, and have plans to attend b-school or pursue a Ph.D at some point in the future. Most of the above will be true, but that is also true for people of all races. What people often forget is that there is more to a person the simplistic assumptions that can apply to people of all races. When I think of my Korean friends, I think of a national-level water polo player, a wrestler, a photographer, and an archeologist. I don't think of a diligent student who spent his or her youth cramming for the SATs.

There's more to a person than his or her name. Look under a veneer, because while you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, you also shouldn't judge a book by its title.