Why is our cultural identity put in boxes?
Standardized tests. College applications. The census. At this point, we have all taken at least one of them. As different as they may be, they share one question in common: What is your race/ethnicity?
For some, this can be answered by a reflexive flick of the wrist, while for others it must be calculated to see if it provides any particular advantages or disadvantages. For me it always ended up being the hardest question. Just pick one. It was a blatant reminder, on paper, that I, along with every other multiracial person in the country, did not quite fit into the neat little categories. It illustrated society’s tendency to function by organizing people as tidily as it could — this or that, black or white, A or B — rarely acknowledging room for ambiguity or a grey area. Every checkmark tied my identity to that little box, a square assessment of my cultural identification and outward appearance.
There are many who feel the discomfort when faced with these questions. The little black letters often serve as a harsh reminder that our disadvantages and privileges we try so hard to hide in public are fully acknowledged on paper, and that we must face the consequences of being assessed by them. Though it is at times uncomfortable… we must assess and ask the question: Is it a necessary evil? Or is it just a flimsy bandage for the even bigger problem that these questions have to be asked in the first place?
Since the U.S. Census now allows survey takers to check off more than one race, the question has shifted from what do I pick from why do I pick this? The government asks about race and ethnicity so that federal agencies can acquire the information to monitor compliance with anti-discrimination laws.
Ithaca College’s Office of Admission asks the question because it is part of the Common Application, and then uses the information to “track and report the diversity of the incoming class and student body,” said Eric Maguire, Vice President of Enrollment.
The American Association for Affirmative Action said that these questions are completely necessary.
“In order to prove discrimination, you have to have some basis . . . you have to have some statistics to gauge to see if there is opportunity in applications,” said Shirly Wilcher, Executive Director of American Association for Affirmative Action. “If you have no data, you have no means of judging whether or not there is equal opportunity. So yes, we think it is very important.”
The races listed on the U.S. Census are: “American Indian or Alaskan Native,” “Asian,” “Black or African American,” “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander,” “Some Other Race,” “White” and “Two or more races.” This is not including the listed ethnicities, Hispanic or non-Hispanic. The website for the U.S. Census does describe that there are places on the survey to specify your race or ethnicity, in addition to the ancestry portion of the survey. In addition to this, the U.S. Census is not asking for race on a phenotypical, or even genetic level.
“The Census questionnaire is based on self-identification,” said Lindsey Hixon, a statistician for the U.S. Census’s statistics branch.
Though the list appears comprehensive in that it covers every race or ethnicity that comes to mind, it complicates what it means to actually identify with one of these groups. As someone who is part Indian, I would find it difficult to culturally align myself with someone who was Japanese or Cambodian, yet we are all lumped into the category Asian.
“If the government imposed a category for every technical group — there’d be a lot of categories,” Wilcher said. “There’d be too much to manage. When you have groups that small, it’s hard to prove discrimination.”
College applications are still a different story.
“Domestic applicants from traditionally under-represented minority backgrounds … are typically sought-after by admission officials who may allow some flexibility when it comes to grades and test scores in order to attract and admit these candidates,” said Sally Rubenstone, senior advisor for College Confidential, an online college-bound community site. “Any student who ticks the ‘right’ minority box may get preferential treatment.”
Our society is not at the point where we can do away with asking for race and ethnicity on these surveys. As long as we are on unequal playing grounds, there needs to be some assessment of the different racial groups. But our prescribed remedy for assisting groups that have faced years of disadvantages is merely an attempt to bandage up bigger societal problems. As always, we try to patch things up with numbers and calculations.
Anjali Patel is a sophomore documentary studies and production major who is “some other race.” Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.