How ethnic actors changing their names perpetuates Hollywood’s racism

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Gage Skidmore

Chloe Bennet, born Chloe Wang, has faced backlash due to her decision to change her name in order to get jobs in Hollywood.

Rhea Master, Social Media Manager

As an immigrant, western media has never paralleled my experiences in American society. A large part of this is the disparity between figures in western media and those in my own life.

A common trend in Western media is the practice of whitewashing, reaffirming the racist backbones that control the industry. Whitewashing is simply the elimination or replacement of people of color with white characters, however, it can be broadened to include the general preference toward white actors. 

This has resulted in ethnic actors, or those that belong to minority subgroups that vary in culture, changing their names to fit the expectations Western media has upheld in order to get jobs.

Recently, controversy has arisen around Chloe Bennet, a star in the TV series Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD who defended angelizing her name. Born Chloe Wang, when the actress was asked about her name change she commented, “It means I had to pay my rent, and Hollywood is racist and wouldn’t cast me with a last name that made them uncomfortable.”

We see this occurring in actors and actresses who are of a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds. For example, Kal Penn, a popular Indian-American actor known for his roles in Designated Survivor and Harold & Kumar, was actually born Kalpen Suresh Modi. Mindy Kaling, another very popular Indian-American actress and comedian, was actually born Vera Mindy Chokalingam.

We see name changes among certain religious groups in order to have more Christian-sounding last names; this is something we see among Jewish actors. Some notable celebrities include Ralph Lauren, who was born Ralph Lifshitz, and Larry King, who was born Lawrence Harvey Zeigler. This is built on the idea that having simpler, “whiter” names will make it easier to get acting jobs.

This isn’t even a new issue: it has been going on since the beginning of the popular film and media industry. Sir Ben Kingsley changed his name in the 1960s from Krishna Pandit Bhanji. This was also extremely common among early Latinx actors like Anita Page from El Salvador, who changed her name from Anita Evelyn Pomares in the early 1900s.

In a Radio Times interview, Kingsley said, “As soon as I changed my name, I got the jobs.”

One of the largest problems in the advocacy of this issue is that not enough people are talking about it. Many actors who do change their names state other reasons, such as making their names simpler or more pronounceable. 

Mindy Kaling shortened her name, more specifically her last name, after having it mispronounced on numerous occasions when starting in standup comedy. This is an internal conflict that many actors from minority ethnic backgrounds have- either deciding how to present their names to society or changing it completely to assimilate to Western standards.

The underlying issue still remains true; “let us change our name so white people are more comfortable with it.”

When the only representation of people in the media is based on this artificial presence, it affects how impressionable viewers start to perceive the world.

Leela R. Magavi, MD, elaborated on this to Health and said, “It can lead to debilitating anxiety as minority individuals may feel pressured to look, speak, or present a certain way.” Furthermore, “…there are so few representations of people of color in media, losing even one more hurts us.”

She goes on to talk about how whitewashing leads to specific negative health outcomes such as demoralization, imposter syndrome, low mood, and anxiety.

As a minority, the effects of not seeing people who sound or look or have similar names to me on TV made it harder for me to accept myself especially in regards to my cultural identity. I don’t believe that there is a justification for changing your name because it changes what we believe our “normal” to be, making it seem like the ethnic names we were assigned at birth are somehow less than.

Humans inherently stay away from things that make them “uncomfortable,”and when this fear is reaffirmed, people continue to feel this way. The problem is when we try to fit these norms we allow people to go on thinking this is a justified feeling. The only way to fight this is by making people uncomfortable, by turning away from the practice of white-washing and normalizing individuality.