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Don’t Box Us In

Overheard at the doctor’s office recently: “Do you identify as Caucasian or non-Caucasian?” A secretary was screening a patient over the phone with what’s become a common question—one I hadn’t heard distilled down to such binary terms. In my experience, the “race identification” question usually goes something like this:

What is your race? (check all that apply):

  1. White or Caucasian

  2. Black or African American

  3. American Indian or Alaska Native

  4. Latino or Hispanic

  5. Asian

  6. Pacific Islander

  7. Other

  8. Prefer not to answer

Sometimes the list is a little longer, when a more specific ethnicity, such as a particular Hispanic group or a regional native tribe, is thrown in for good measure. And on occasion I see blank spaces offered for filling in your own ethnic identity. In all cases, I find myself fighting the urge to launch into a rant of questions:

  1. “Am I supposed to check how I think others see me—or how I want to be seen?”

  2. “Are we referring to my race as it has been categorized since… when? The last 100 years? 500 years? (Because that might affect my answer.)”

  3. “Can I use the results I’ve gotten from a recent DNA test? If so, which one (because that changes too, depending on the company and their associated database)?”

  4. “Regarding Latino—can that refer to any ethnicities with Latin-based roots or are you only referring to communities that have been marginalized in the US?”

  5. “Why does White have only a color classification, but all the others include a geographic classification?”

Sure, there are times when I’ll check the box with little deliberation, but it’s always a source of irritation. (And my occasional selection of “Prefer not to answer” hardly mollifies.) As a long-time genealogist, I’ve been ensconced in family history, social identity, ever-changing geographic borders, and the deep realization that race is a construct, impossible to pin down. Cultures are forever blending and shifting, with “identity” always a matter of perspective. To anyone with a basic understanding of anthropology or genetics, it’s screamingly obvious that humans are too multifaceted to be distilled down to a box or two. Yet ironically, it’s all too human to categorize people.

Do we really need to classify by race?

The race question itself is one that survey writers grapple with too. And as much as it annoys me, I also get why it’s asked. It would be so simple to just declare we’re all human and we “don’t see color” (as if we could pretend that a