Vol 12, Issue 7
It happens time and time again.
Forms, surveys, applications. Government, NGO, corporate.
“What is your ethnic background?”
In most cases, mixed-race identity is not an available option in completing forms and applications that have asked for ethnicity/nationality/race. They don’t let you select multiple options. Often, there will simply be a list of options; either a specific country (Korea, Italy, etc.,) or more broad (South-East Asian, European, etc.,). Then there’ll be the ever-so-appealing “Other” option if you haven’t somehow fit into the generous options provided above. More rarely, there will be a “Mixed” option on there; and hardly ever does that give you the opportunity to then specify what that is a mix of.
Let me be clear here; I understand that generally the intent behind such questions is completely well meaning. These organisations are collecting the data for statistical, or diversity purposes. Whether you feel on either an individual or aggregate level diversity processes are implemented well, or should exist at all, is beyond the scope of what I intend to address in this article; there are more than enough comments sections on websites that ran stories on the infamous “Google memo” for you to explore that. I’m just pointing out that I realise that there is no ill-intent behind the way these questions are being presented.
My parents are of two different races; a Polish mother and a Bangladeshi father. And whenever I get these questions, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to answer them. Clearly, the point of questions like this on forms and surveys is not to allow people to tell their whole life story; but it doesn’t seem that difficult to allow somebody to enter multiple backgrounds (or, perhaps, use the square checkboxes that allow you to pick more than one category rather than limiting you to one). This may make the data more complex if applicants pick multiple options (mine may be straightforward with only two, but what about people with even more diverse lineage?). Nonetheless, this excuse is one of laziness of implementation or lack of consideration and doesn’t stand up to much intellectual scrutiny. Mixed-race people, are, after all, the fastest growing single ethnic group. In a globalised world with an increasing proportion of multiracial families there is only more and more people who will not have their background reflected in such questions. It also means the accuracy of the data that is collected will only worsen, unless a different approach is taken.
I suppose some, in particular those who are not from mixed backgrounds, may read this and think “So what’s the big deal? You just pick an option and move on.” And it’s true. But it is a little disheartening to be faced with the same dilemma ad nauseam. I have zero interest in trying to assert to anyone that the options such questions present are some kind of ‘micro-aggression’. What I do care about expressing is how much it sucks. Why? Because when I get asked the question, without the ability to enter multiple options, I’m placed with two options:
1) To prioritise one of my parents’ ethnic backgrounds over the alternative, either selecting
“Polish” or “Bangladeshi” as my singular identity
2) or, alternatively, to doom myself to the category of “Other”.
Which would you do if you were me? Or would it be better to not have to put people in such a position that they have to make a somewhat reductive or demeaning choice about their ethnic make-up?
Timothy Sarder is a third-year JD student and the Managing Editor of De Minimis
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