race and ethnicity questions

A flock of birds flies above the camera on a backdrop of a sunny blue sky with scattered clouds. Trees and a building fill the view in silhouette. Nobody is asking the birds where they are from. It doesn’t matter!

I’ve filled out a lot of questionnaires in my life. The question I hate the most is the one asking me my race or ethnicity. Nobody standardizes these questions. Sometimes I have to choose one; sometimes I can “check all that apply.” Sometimes questions about race and ethnicity combine into one question. Sometimes, if I check “Hispanic,” they grey out all the other options. If the questioner is trying to be thoughtful, they will give me a blank field where I can type whatever I want. Every one of these questions asks me to explain what group someone else has assigned me to. 

If people believed in equality, why would this question matter? Everyone should be “treated the same.” If people believed in equity, they would use this information to right the wrongs of racism. They would try to repair the need for us to ask this question at all. Some places only ask this question so they can update their website with a statistic. Please do more than this!

I choose not to ask this question on any survey I design. Some believe they can offer better services if they know the racial mix of the population they serve. But many non-profits say that everyone should receive the same services regardless of their race. Or they might want to use the answer to know the language a person speaks or reads. But a person’s ethnicity doesn’t tell you anything about the language they speak or read. Someone might be able to speak English, but would rather read and sign legal documents in Spanish. At a colleague’s food bank, she uses the data to know what fruits and vegetables her community prefers. But I love plenty of food outside my family’s cultures, and I explain none of that with my ethnicity. 

So what do we use it for? In a white-dominant society, race and ethnicity is a way to put non-white people into groups. It’s done to make assumptions about the needs of each group. Time and again, I find that the best way to know what a person needs, is to ask.

Instead of asking for a person’s race or ethnicity, why not target your question to what you really want to know?

  • What kind of foods do you like to eat?
  • What language do you prefer to speak?
  • What language do you feel comfortable reading in?
  • What would be important for me to know?

To me, that last question is like the empty box I described earlier. There’s nothing more powerful than letting someone speak for themselves. To use the words they want to use, to describe themselves in all the ways they think is important.

Until we can feel like we don’t need to ask this question anymore, it’s the least we can do.