Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Check One

One point of contention for people of mixed race heritage has always been racial reporting on demographic surveys. From my own personal experience and from hearing the stories of many, many others, I know that there is always a strange, uncomfortable feeling that wells up whenever I am asked to report my race. It's not that I'm opposed to collection of demographics--in fact, I feel proud and patriotic when I get to participate in the US Census every 10 years, and am appalled by the recent House of Representatives vote to eliminate the American Community Survey (write your senator to stop the madness!). Specific to racial identification, I very much want people to know how I describe that important part of my identity. But every time I start to read the race question on a form, I know that I am not the one choosing the desctiption. The boxes choose. Who knew that the words "check one" could be so traumatically defining to a young child (or always-growing adult)? Specific memories stand out from very early on about dealing with this question. It was the question on every standardized test that everyone knew the answer to except me. Asking how to fill out that section made you look as stupid as asking how to spell your name (also an issue for me in the standardized testing context). For a mixed person checking only one box means, at best, knowingly providing inaccurate or misleading information. At worst it means publicly documenting which parent you love more or which side of your family you would erase from the past. It means succumbing to the ways that others have spoken for you against your will and admitting to shameful fantasies about about wishing away a part of your very being.

I remember filling out my SAT registration and asking my sister what she marked for the race question. How could I negotiate my desire to follow-rules (you can only check ONE) with my desire to be truthful to both the survey-takers and to myself? My sister's response still drives my box-checking decisions to this day: "I still check both. Sometimes I check 'other' also. If it jams up the machine and they have to read it and enter it by hand, good. Then someone will be forced to notice what's going on." I still check as many as I want, no matter what it tells me to do. That's me, sticking it to The Man. Sadly, as an adult I've learned more about the many ways The Man sticks it back to you and know that whichever data-collector has to deal with my insolence will probably just choose one race for me based on whatever will most benefit the data-collection agency. I have seen this happen at my school when collecting data about my students and it still weighs on my conscience the many times I've not spoken up in defense of kids and their families who were just trying to explain who they are. I'd rather honor the self-identification wishes of a real human being than worry about whether some final statistics will add up to more than 100%.

Fortunately, I have seen change in my lifetime and now it is much more common to see "check all that apply." Of course there are glaring issues with the racial categories one gets to choose from, not to mention the delineation of "Hispanic" as an ethnicity but not a race, but expanding the number of boxes I can check is at least a step in the right direction. I like to think that the data collected from the 2000 US Census (the first time one could select more than one race) provided a positive, affirming demonstration of why this data is worth collecting.

What brought this all up today is a form where I saw something I'd never seen before:

This brought up a lot of questions morally, emotionally, and mathematically. I am going to list a bunch of them, in no particular order, just because it got me thinking:

  • I think that being able to select more than one race is always preferable to forcing someone to pick one race, but what number is adequate? Two doesn't seem like enough, but a limit of 15 seems like an unnecessary limit. 
  • However, five is still a limit, so is that inherently too confining/controlling? 
  • Mathematically, why five? Would a power of two make more mathematical sense? 
  • From a data analysis perspective, what are the benefits of limiting someone to five choices rather than not limiting the number of choices at all? 
  • How many people actually check five races, especially given the list of options (I only see three out of the 19 that don't fall under the APIA umbrella)? 
  • Identifying with five races means going back relatively far in one's ancestry, so at what point in the family tree does one stop identifying with a certain racial identity? 
  • What aspects of a given race (and culture) get retained for people in a way that pushes them to identify with that race/culture? 
  • At what point in a genealogy do people stop identifying as mixed race and what sociocultural factors play into that? 
  • How do positive and negative reinforcement of claiming (or not claiming) a multiracial heritage impact one's desire to do so? E.g. do I choose to identify as mixed race more because it's become fashionable in recent years (positive reinforcement) or because the negative consequences of choosing two races have been reduced? Does the tragic mulatto want to choose one race so he can be fully accepted in a loving community or because he doesn't want to be lynched? 
  • How much of the rise in mixed race births is/can be attributed to an increase in interracial couples and how much to a change in the ways we identify ourselves (and the ways that society allows us to identify ourselves)?  
Please feel free to run with any of these questions and write a doctoral thesis out of it. Just be sure to send me a copy.

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