Boxing in Identity

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Race boxes have existed in job application forms, health forms, surveys and many more for as long as we know it. Most of us never questioned the significance of it or the importance of why a future employer or a doctor would want to know about someone’s ethnicity. What does that have to do with petroleum engineering or a severe cold?

Well, these questions arose once people could not fit into a category. Usually, the race boxes consist of:

White
Hispanic/Latino
Black/African American
Asian
Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander
American Indian/Alaska Native
Other

People that do not fit into a category usually check the “Other” box and must specify what type of ethnicity they belong to. This lead students like Domingo Cortez to ask, why was that important to fill out and to be explained in a college application process? Why was it necessary?

Domingo is a member of MRULE (Multi-Racial Unity Living Experience & Intercultural Aide Program), and this ‘issue’ was discussed at their meeting on campus. They gather every Monday night for a hour to have a productive and inquisitive exchange of information on topics that are socially controversial today. Like racial inequality, what it means to be vulnerable as a person, segregated communities, and how it affects society, and much more.

When the session was on these race boxes, people of all sorts of ethnicity shared their views on how Hispanic and Latino should not be categorized into one box because both of them are different and how Black and African American cannot fit into one box because you have Black African students filling out these forms confused on what to choose: they are black in color, but they are not African American.

This leads to the “Other” box that frequently causes feeling of being singled out and not belonging to a certain type of norm in this country, for the individual filling that form out.

If you explore the racial and ethnic upkeep in other countries, like Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and the United Kingdom, you will find that they only ask whether you are a citizen of their country or not.

So the question that we go back to again: Are these boxes necessary in the U.S.? What are they for?

According to professor Steve Gold, who is the associate chair in the department of Sociology at MSU, these boxes used to not only have identification of race and ethnicity, but also number of ancestry an individual has. Compared to some other countries, the U.S. Census is actually having more and more categories being added into these boxes.

Gold continued to say that the U.S. Constitution separates church from state and thus, the state should not ask for religious preference.

If we compare our situation to another country, say France, who has an emphasis on secularism, it is a completely different practice. It makes sense that it is different because, well of course it is another nation, but when you become a French citizen, it does not matter what your ethnicity or religious preference is. This results in their lack of immigration and race and ethnicity data collection. And arguably, Gold shared, “it hasn’t been working very well for the nation because there’s greater racial polarization and inequality in France. To some degree, there is more discrimination and tension present.”

In our case, the reason why we have a certain extent of multiculturalism is because we allow the freedom of certain groups to represent themselves with regard to clothing and displays in any way. Whereas France, the vast majority of people are from European origins and Christian religions so that tends to form the society into practicing institutions and cultural functions towards that particular tradition. So rather than making everyone equal, it leads to the seclusion of minorities in the society.

In the U.S., the reason why data on race and ethnicity is collected is also because of the attempts to track their status. These data statistics presents, Gold says, “which community is doing more poorly than the other and also, to show the varying results of how these differing ethnic groups are progressing in terms of wealth, education, incarceration, etc.”

Hence, the absence of collecting data on these factors will eliminate the opportunity to create a solution for the well being of these groups. If we did not collect data, there would be no information. Some people might think that this is good, but in reality, the statistics are powerful.

Gold concluded that he thinks if people dislike filling those boxes, it is their own opinion, but if there are endless, various types of race and ethnic boxes, it would be jumble of information making it difficult to obtain information statistically.

On the other hand, according to Domingo Cortez, a advertising senior  at MSU, believes the contrary.

Born and raised in Michigan, he is of Mexican ethnicity. He shares that the race boxes are used to somehow judge and categorize an individual, specially for people who are trying to get jobs, because he believes that they would prefer to hire a person originating from a majority ethnic group rather than a minority. Checking the box will already give out what group or category of ethnicity you belong to and can affect the employer’s decision based on his or her presumptions about where you belong in society as an individual.

In this manner, Cortez felt confined and singled out, but this also gives him all the more reason to know whether he is applying for the right type of company or not.

“If they don’t want me because of my name and my race, then I wouldn’t even want to work for them,” Cortez said.

The fact that for some purposes in society, it is necessary to check the race box. Say, in terms of collecting data to determine how the different ethnic groups are progressing in society. But for job application forms, Cortez does not think its necessary at all.

“You should be asking me to check boxes for my strengths and skills, instead of my ethnicity,” Cortez said.

Removing the race box for job application forms is the best way to decrease unemployment, but for statistical purposes it is beneficial. But as for now the U.S. will inevitably continue to monitor the racial statistics through these boxes, despite the dissenting opinion of students like Cortez.

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