Should we classify our ethnicity for the sake of data?

As part of my day job, I process personal information for hundreds of people. Name, address, birthdate, etc. The form that each person submits with their information includes a section on Ethnicity.

Photo credit: Amy Lynne Photography

Each time I record a person’s ethnicity; I can’t help but wonder why we need to classify ourselves in this way.

I understand that organizations need to publicly report statistics so that they can’t be accused of discrimination and can claim diversity.

Large companies, universities, organizations, and the government enjoy numbers and statistics.

 29% White

13% Hispanic

25% Black

18% Asian

12% American Indian

2% Other

1% Undisclosed

My main question then is, doesn’t classifying each other further segregate us?

How can we expect a nation that struggles so much with unity, to fight discrimination when we are keeping such close track of the different people groups?

What ethnicity are those that select “undisclosed”? My instincts tell me that very few, if any, from that group consider themselves white.

As a white person, I never think about my color. I select “white” like it’s no big deal. I never think about it. Being white never hurts me or impacts me. I never have fear of what selecting “white” means, and I am never surprised when white carries the majority of the percentages. I don’t even think about it, I just assume that’s going to be the case.

So my small act of participating in change is to select “undisclosed” when completing forms like the very ones I process. Does it really matter to anyone else? Probably not. Is it just another way of doing nothing to make me feel like I’m doing something? Likely.

But I like that at least I’m changing the numbers, and that I’m stopping to think. Whether or not it’s a positive action, it’s still action.

What’s your opinion? Does checking “undisclosed” make a difference? Do you think the United States still struggles with discrimination? Do forms like these help, hurt, or do nothing at all? And lastly, does your race impact the way you respond to these questions?

Give, Justice

15 comments


  1. Richard Potts

    Good questions, Kyla.

    I've wrestled with this for a long time, too. In a society that takes in as many immigrants as we do, we have to have instruments that track their progress to ensure particular groups are not being marginalized. So, the census is in an impossible bind on this.

    But I worry that we fetishize ethnicity, or overemphasize antecedent ethnicity. If someone claimed to be "ethnically American", we'd just assume they haven't done their geneological homework. This isn't backdoor xenophobia, either.

    I think an ethnicity fetish does work against the formation of genuine community, or at least a socially negotiated, shared imagined community. Instead, we have a collection of hundreds of smaller communities just sharing the same space. That's troubling.

    • kylajoyful

      I hadn't thought about having smaller communities sharing the same space versus genuine community. Genuine community takes concentrated effort; it's way easier to spend time with people who are just like us. I do agree that we have an ethnicity fetish. The more we seek to classify our differences, the more we see them.

  2. It has never bothered me because I believe those statistics are used simply for statistic sake. And for someone who likes statistics, it's fine with me. I also think we should be "proud" of our ethnicity, in a sense (as proud as a Mennonite can be–I can't think of another word to put there). I don't believe that unity means ignoring who we are and where we come from. I think unity means coming together as different people, different personalities and different ethnicities. Personally, I like the idea of knowing the statistics of who is involved in places where I might become involved. I prefer to become involved in places where there is a variety of ethnicities. If I'm looking for a church, for example, I prefer to find one that is very diverse ethnically (which is difficult to find here). So to know the statistics of churches would be very helpful to me. I know that can be used the opposite way, as well, to find a church (or school, or whatever) that is all white. At my son's school, I think it's interesting to look at the statistics and see what the makeup is of the school. Years ago I heard an argument that God is NOT colorblind, as many Christians try to claim in an effort to be inclusive. Instead, God sees all colors and loves all colors. God made us that way and we shouldn't ignore or overlook that.

    Now, if I found out that those statistics were used to discriminate against certain ethnicities or groups, that would be different. But I have not found that to be the case.

    • kylajoyful

      If I'm hearing you correctly, you appreciate statistics because, if given a choice as to where you spend your time, seeing statistics would help you choose a place that is more diverse? Also, that ethnic statistics help us better celebrate our differences instead of dividing them?

      I think that's a really hopeful response, but I wonder how that would change if we classified people in other categories, such as religion or sexual orientation?

      I appreciate your perspective, because I haven't found that to be true in myself. I've found that the longer I process these forms, the more I begin dividing people that I meet. Maybe it's a matter of how I choose to read?

      Do you think that someone who was born into a minority ethnicity would share your perspective?

      • To be honest, I have never given a lot of thought to statistics. I was thinking as I was typing my earlier response. I appreciate statistics because it teaches me a lot about different communities. If I want to learn about another country, I look at the information and read the statistics: What is the ethnic origin, what religions do they practice, what is the gender ratio, what languages are spoken, etc. The same is true for communities here in the US– cities, states, schools, churches, etc. I can learn a lot about each of those communities by reading the statistics. I don't think about statistics as divisive or uniting. I just think of them as facts. I also think our differences should be celebrated, which, I guess, makes me more appreciative of statistics. Or makes me accept the statistics okay. I'm not really sure how to explain that.

        We do classify people in other categories. Statistics usually classify race/ethnicity, gender, age, marital status, and often income level and education. I just spoke on ethnicity because that's what you spoke of. But somehow those other categories don't become much of an issue. When I was single I often wondered why it mattered if I was single or married. But I finally accepted that it just describes the demographics.

        Maybe it's such a big issue to you because you deal so much with those statistics in your job. Maybe you have a hard time turning off that part of your brain when you leave work, so it lingers with you? I'm wondering about your choice to not specify your race when asked. You certainly have the right to do that. But like you said, does it really matter to anyone? Is it just to make you feel better? If more people did that would it really do anything positive, or would it just skew the facts? I'm just asking. And the fact that you are "changing the numbers," I'm wondering why you see that as a good thing or a necessary action. Do you truly think statistics are bad for minorities? In my experience statistics usually benefit minorities or marginalized groups. At Christian's school, the fact that over 50% of the families qualify for free or reduced lunch (and the limit is pretty high) allows the school to receive additional funding to offer additional programs. I see that as a positive. Many of these families who have limited resources are receiving additional help in hopes that the children will be more successful. Also, at his school whites and blacks, both, are in the minority. If you go to TSU, whites would be in the minority. So it's not always white people as the majority. I'm just asking these questions in response to the things you said. Not sure I understand your view on this.

        I don't know if someone of a minority race would agree with me, or not. I was wondering the same thing as I was reading your thoughts. Do those people from minority races/ethnicities have a problem specifying their race on a form? You have prompted me to want to ask people of other races that question.

  3. Elizabeth Grimes

    I do the same thing when possible, also choose not to disclose gender if I can help it. For example, I did that on many law school applications last year and the reason was I didn't want any special treatment. I just wanted them to blindly decide whether or not I was qualified based on the content of my application.

  4. kylajoyful

    I forgot that Chris Lahr is currently writing a blog series called "What White People Can Do About Racism" through the Red Letter Christians blog. Here's the link http://www.redletterchristians.org/oh-crap-im-whi

  5. aedixon

    Interesting. I hate the segregation, but it's nice to have variations, too. It's too bad that we ever had to instate that census, but we did and so here was are. I've struggled with that check box a lot since high school. I always checked "Hispanic." It wasn't until later in life that people actually judged me on being too white to be Hispanic! Or about my surname not being Spanish or Native American. Seriously, I had to defend that my grandma was named Manuela Reyos? Does that make me any less who I really am? And, BTW, it's generally "white" people that bug me about it. I guess I kinda like blurring that line between what people expect ethnicity is supposed to be. I'm not fully one or the other. I guess I always wished I could check two boxes. Maybe we should all check them all!? 😉

    • kylajoyful

      My office only recently added the option to check more than one box. Of course, previously people could check more than one ethnicity on a paper form, but when I typed the data, I had to pick one for that person. Which was almost always, "white", because it was the first on the list. Now the database has been updated so that a person could potentially register under all ethnicities, and the form updated so that a person can first select if they are Hispanic. However, the first one that I actually type gets listed as "primary".

      I'm sorry that you have been judged based on your name and skin tone. I think your response is beautiful, that you like "blurring the line". Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. On an official form last year, instead of checking the "Black" box, I checked "other" and wrote "human" as my race. For reals. For me, I don't like being classified based on the hue of my skin, but I am thankful people do see my race. Meaning it bothers me to no end when I hear white people (I'm not trying to put one group on blast, but I haven't heard this from any other group) say to me, "I don't see race." Aaaarrgghh!! Stop it. You do too see my race, and it's okay. Spankin' see me! Maybe people feel so hypersensitive to not being called racist, they play it safe and say they don't see race at all? It is okay to see race, that doesn't make you racist. It makes you genuine.

    Perhaps things will change when we are, as Dr. King said, judged by the content of our character and the only race that matters is human.

    Another observation. It seems the national race of America is Caucasian. All of us other groups have to describe our race plus American: African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, etc. Has anyone ever called themselves Caucasian-American?

    I think when we can find commonality and celebrate our differences, what a wonderful world it would be…

  7. joeywahoo

    I hate being asked to answer questions like that. Worst of all, I cannot recall ever being required to disclose my ethnicity in a situation where my ethnicity should matter. In the last few days I attended an agricultural expo and obtained a library card. On both ocassions the registration form required me to identify my ethnicity. Why???

    I really look forward to the day we don't practice this form of bureaucratic segregation.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  8. Charlotte Ann

    I am officially not allowing the government or anyone else to plop me into a generalized grouping. I am proud of my roots, but those roots do not tell anyone anything that they need to know. Though I do not believe that racism will just go away by aliminating the question, racism is definitely reinforced by the question. If you stop giving them the data, they can no longer use it to keep us divided. I am with Jermaine and many other 'others'. I am other-human.

  9. Pingback: “ETHNICIZATION”: STATE LABELING AND CATEGORIZATION OF ETHNICITIES. | machiavellish

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