Does Sharing A Last Name Mean Sharing The Bias That Goes With It? : Code Switch What happens when a "Miller" becomes a "Martinez"? This week, we offer advice for a woman whose boyfriend is worried about unconscious bias affecting their marriage.
NPR logo With This Ring, I Thee Take ... Your Hispanic-Sounding Surname?

With This Ring, I Thee Take ... Your Hispanic-Sounding Surname?

What's in a name? amathers/iStockphoto hide caption

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amathers/iStockphoto

What's in a name?

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Each week on "Ask Code Switch," we tackle your trickiest questions about race. This time, we're unpacking that old nursery rhyme: First comes love, then comes a heated discussion of unconscious bias, then comes a baby in a baby carriage.

Katie from Wilmington, Del., asks:

My boyfriend is Mexican and I am white, and we have started discussing marriage. I floated the idea of taking his last name, but he was strongly against it. He doesn't want an obviously Latino surname (think: Lopez or Garcia) to affect me negatively via unconscious bias, like when I apply for a job. I can appreciate where he's coming from, but I'd like to share a name with him. Honestly, it's mostly because my mom has a different last name than mine, and growing up, that caused some issues with school and insurance. I also suggested that I take both last names legally, and then professionally I would just use my "white" name, but he was against that as well. I don't have the tools to work through this issue. Can you provide some insight?

Let's give it a shot:

Hi Katie,

First, some background. This fear that your boyfriend has? There's actually quite a bit of research on that. One of the most widely cited papers is from 2004, called "Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?" That study compared employers' responses to résumés that had traditionally "white-sounding" names with résumés that had "black-sounding" names.

The results from that study, and similar ones that came later, were pretty alarming: Employers were way more likely to respond to résumés from people whose names sounded white.

There hasn't been as much research done when it comes to names that don't sound either black or white, but a recent study showed that Hispanic-sounding last names may not be quite the drawback that your boyfriend thinks. (That's not to say that Latinos don't face hiring and workplace discrimination — just that the last name alone might not be the strongest factor.)

But, as you point out, having a "Mexican" last name is something that you would be able to use, or not use, strategically.

There are other aspects of being married to a Mexican that you won't be able to turn off — some of which you may have already experienced. One, of course, is prejudice against interracial families. That can come in little ways, like comments at the grocery store. And in bigger ways, like what neighborhood you decideor are able — to live in. Even today, 10 percent of Americans "say they would oppose" a close relative marrying someone of a different race, according to a recent study from the Pew Research Center. That's down from 31 percent in 2000.

So, as you're having this conversation, you and your partner should keep in mind that there are many, many racialized experiences in your future that he won't, and shouldn't necessarily, be able to shield you from.

That's not to say that marrying a Mexican means you'll suddenly experience life as a person of color. But it does mean that, at times, you might not get the same access to things that you used to. That's probably going to feel really weird for both of you at different points. An interracial couple living in Iowa wrote an interesting article for a Harvard law journal about the ways many of their privileges, primarily the white partner's, began to "disappear as a result of [their] marriage."

(By the way, Katie, please write back if and when kids are in your plans. That will open up a host of other challenges to look out for.)

When conversations like this come up again, it might be helpful to ask your partner what, specifically, he has experienced, and what he is worried might happen to you. Many couples say it helps to talk ahead of time about situations you could find yourselves in, and how you would want to respond.

As for a practical answer to your question? Your partner could always take your last name. Then, you would both share a name, and next time he is sending out his résumé, he might get a taste of that white privilege himself.


So readers, what unexpected conversations did you have as a result of being in an interracial relationship? What's your advice for Katie? Let us know. We're CodeSwitch@npr.org.

And as always, if you have a racial conundrum of your own, fill out this form and tell us the deets!