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.

  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.

  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!? 😉

  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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