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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 “caste system” in America, based on race, doesn’t exist). But in reality, if we don’t keep track of such classifications it’s harder to combat discrimination based on said classifications.

For example, if workplaces want to ensure diversity, then knowing ethnic and racial backgrounds has to be part of the hiring process. This proved out in France, where the government made it illegal to formally ask the race question because they didn’t want to import the American framework of racial division. And yet, with no White, Black or Other box to check, a recent study shows that France has one of the highest rates of labor discrimination.

So how do we get past the problems caused by racial and ethnic division if we continue to box ourselves into racial and ethnic categories? Quite the Gordian knot of a problem. And one essential way to begin to un-tease that knot is to go back in time to when it was created.

When Whiteness became a thing

The designation White didn’t appear in colonial American law until 1691. Before then, anyone who came to the New World was labeled by their nationality or their place of origin (e.g., English, Dutch, African, etc.), not by their skin color. However, by the time the US broke away from England, the first official census conducted in 1790 designated three categories: White, Other Free People and Slaves. Over time, additional categories listed peoples who were “othered”—that is, not White. Depending on the year, one would find Black, Mulatto, Chinese, or Indian, among many other classifications. However, throughout all census-taking, the dominant category was simply White.

It would take a trip through the shadowy annals of property, anti-miscegenation, and immigration laws to understand why and how the US government formed its human categorizations. That history would reveal how certain groups were allowed into, or kicked out of, the White box. Over the years, whenever Americans were sorted into oversimplified racial categories, it created and reinforced a White monolithic culture. And today, as evidenced by the ubiquitous race question on forms and surveys, we continue to uphold these categories—despite being far more complex than what meets the eye.

Though we have come a long way since colonial days (most Americans agree that diversity and equity matter) that vexing question still lingers: If we continue to maintain the old structure supported by racial categorizations, how can we hope to create a better, more just system?

Who are we anyway, and where are we going?

In the interest of putting forth solutions instead of just unanswerable questions, I suggest going back to the starting point before there was a White categorization. If we are forcing minority populations to identify based on their origins, why not make everyone do the same? I recognize such a “fix” might become overwhelming with an interminably long list of ethnic identifications. But there could be a manageable list of global regions, for example, with a place to fill in specifics.

My point is that if we go back to our pre-White origins, we might start seeing ourselves on a more level playing field—which would also help nudge our society in that same direction. Because the truth is, creating “White” was a big fat cheat in order to consolidate power. And when we come to a deeper understanding of how we all got here (literally and figuratively), it will lead to a greater investment in where we’re going, collectively.

I wouldn’t want this approach to sidestep the painful history that Whiteness has caused, nor suggest that it isn’t the real political construct it is. (Not labeling a culture “White” doesn’t make White supremacy invisible.) But perhaps if we shrunk the monolithic mountain of Whiteness down to the little hills it’s comprised of, we would also shrink its dominance and power.

If we are to truly embrace the uniqueness of American diversity, then we should each understand our origins instead of some broad-strokes, lumped-together category. And for those who don’t know their roots, then let it be a motivation to learn more via research, a DNA test, or other methods. Doing so would be a reward in itself—a powerful history lesson, far more fun than a textbook. It might even pry more of us open to understanding and empathizing with present-day immigrants, like the very visceral lesson I learned when we lived in Italy.

Ultimately, more and more of us would start checking all the boxes regarding global origins (the “melting pot” idea in action!). Once we reach a tipping point, somebody will come up with the genius idea that we really only need one box labeled human. Then race classification can go the way of the flat-earth mentality, as we also advance other ways to ensure balance and equity (like the brilliant and all-encompassing Doughnut Economic model). And in America, we could begin to embody the paradoxical e pluribus unum our country was founded upon, beyond the platitude it has become. Because at its core that phrase holds a fundamental truth: The more we realize how unique we are, the more we’ll realize how the same we are. And that, my fellow humans, could be the unifying epiphany that saves us.

I like to reinforce every post I write by supporting relevant changemakers. In Becoming People Who Embrace Race learn about an awesome nonprofit working hard to ensure that children know how to have fearless and insightful discussions regarding race.

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