My name is not Penelope. But Penelope is the name everyone calls me except for my parents. They call me Adrienne. It’s hard for me to even write that name though—I get a sick feeling writing it. But maybe writing it is like forcing an agoraphobic outside—now things will be better? Here’s the story about how I became Penelope.
(If I had understood how prevalent name-based discrimination is in the US, maybe I would have picked Lisa or Meredith.)
My son’s name have a story as well. I knew their last name would be Rodriguez because that is their dad’s last name (my ex-husband). I have changed my last name three times (yes, go read that link) so it seemed nonsensical to give them my last name. Anyway, what if I changed it again?
I grew up in a rich white family and the only black people I met were hired help. I never even talked to a Latino person until I met my ex-husband. He has a Peruvian dad and a Jewish mom. He told me that he was discriminated against, but it was hard to imagine. He is very tall, good-looking and went to an elite school and was a music prodigy who went to college at age 15. I said to him, “You look white to me.” He said that’s racist.
I don’t know if it’s racist. But I learned a lot about racism by going out to dinner with his dad. His dad was huge in the defense industry. He is literally a rocket scientist with top security clearance. But when we went out to dinner lots of people thought he was a busboy. He generally got bad service everywhere. He looks Mexican.
It all seemed insane to me. Not real. Like, people are ridiculous. It took me so long to see that I’m one of those ridiculous people. We all are, to some extent.
But I told myself that Rodriguez would benefit the kids so much when applying to college that it was fine to put them through the discrimination they might receive.
It is true that the population of Latino males who apply to college is lower than any other demographic. But I’m not so sure that the advantage outweighs the disadvantages of a Latino last name. Because I keep thinking that college is a waste of time. Literally each day someone sends me a new link about why college is a waste of time. So probably I should have given my kids a last name like Ford, which is good for the workplace and bad for college admissions.
The New York Times shows that your surname seals your fate, at least statistically speaking. So yes, of course there are exceptions. But many fewer than you think. For example, basketball players who have black-sounding names don’t get to the NBA as often as players with white-sounding names.
Even kids who go to Stanford have problems with their last names when they don’t sound white.
Kids live up to the expectations people have of their names. I gave the kids Hebrew first names because I want Jewish kids to recognize them as one of their own. I want the kids to feel a sense of belonging.
I know you’re thinking that I’m nuts that I named my kids so they’d feel a sense of belonging. But in fact, names that are this unusual reflect parents who will raise the kids in unusually independent ways. So in that sense, my kids will feel a sense of belonging from their names—belonging to independent families full of self-directed learners. And maybe I’ll just have to get over the fact that I sacrificed the benefits of sounding white in the name of getting into a good college, and now it seems college does not matter.