William Cohen, former U. S. Secretary of Defense, and former U. S. Senator and Representative

Names communicate a lot of information, which is subject to both interpretation and misinterpretation. This discussion of inferences about people's race and/or religion from their names is the third of a five part series What Do Names Tell Us? (The other two parts dealt with popular names and last names.)

(From time to time, Looking in the Cultural Mirror deals with broad topics that require multiple posts--for example, the six part series on The Census and Race [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6].)


Just as names convey cultural information (discussed in my previous post) they also convey information about race and religion. When you think about it, inferences about race and religion are also inferences about culture--just other aspects of culture. For example, in addition to communicating "Italian," the surname Bianchi also communicates "Roman Catholic" and "white." (Bianchi even means "white.")

Here are four surnames: Chan, Garcia, Obama, Patel. In terms of American folk categories of race, they respectively convey the information Asian, Latino, black, and...what? As I discussed in my post Who is Asian?, Americans haven't yet reached a cultural consensus on the racial categorization of South Asians. So, on hearing someone referred to as Mr. Patel, most Americans would guess what race he is not (white), and might presume that he has Indian ancestry, but wouldn't have a handy answer for what race he is.

Here are three more surnames: Christian, Cohen, Mohammed. To most Americans, these names convey the religious information Christian, Jewish, Muslim. By law, in the United States, freedom of religion is an individual right guaranteed by the First Amendment. So individuals with any of these last names could be a member of any of the three religions, or of any other religion, or of no religion.

Consider the case of former Secretary of Defense William Cohen--he is a Christian. As his last name suggests, his father was Jewish (though his mother was not). Since Judaism is passed down through the maternal line, in addition to his choice not to be Jewish, Jewish religious tradition also deems him not to be Jewish. Still, most Americans would say that he has "Jewish blood," suggesting a racial dimension to Jewishness not present in Christianness.

As with other cultural information conveyed by last names, racial and religious inferences only apply to a person's father (or father's father, or someone further back in the male line). And, as with other cultural information, one can examine the relationship between given names and surnames for consistency or contrast of information.

Here are two sets of women's names: (1) Mai Chan, Maria Garcia, Latoya Obama, Indira Patel; and Grace Christian, Rebecca Cohen, Aisha Mohammed; and (2) Isabella Chan, Abigail Garcia, Madison Obama, Sophia Patel; and Olivia Christian, Mia Cohen, Chloe Mohammed. The first set contains given names that are consistent with the racial or religious information suggested by the family names; and the second set contains given names from the ten most popular in 2009. (As an exercise, try making up two comparable sets of men's names.)

The first set of names would seem to communicate the parents' desire to emphasize the racial or religious information conveyed by the family name, while the second set would downplay that in favor of a generalized Americanness. As children grow into adults, their racial or religious identities may turn out to be important to them--or not very important; and so their names may or may not present issues for them to grapple with. For example, a person with a religious name who has chosen a different religion, or is an agnostic or atheist, would be confronted with a problem not faced by a devout follower of his or her parents' religion.

Thus, the ways individuals react to the racial or religious information conveyed by the names they received--living up to it, ignoring it, or rebelling against it--helps us to understand how they see themselves and their place in the world.

Image source:
William Cohen, former U. S. Secretary of Defense, and former U. S. Senator and Representative.

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