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The Race Question: Which Box Should You Check?

How do you fill out questions about race?

Schools have long sought diverse student bodies. They’re essential to promote affirmative action policies, and provide students with the opportunity to learn cultural lessons from each other.

Making up a diverse student body has gotten more complicated as students have become more diverse. As of this year, the Department of Education has all schools giving students the chance to identify as more than one race. As a result, the number of mixed-race students in colleges demographic data has shot up. At Rice University, students identifying as mixed-race have gone from the single digits to over 500.

The New York Times takes a hard look at what this means for college students. Some are wondering what parts of their racial and ethnic heritage to highlight on their applications.

It’s not only a question at the college level, though. I had a similar set of questions when looking at kindergarten entrance forms.

My kids have one white parent and one Latino parent. Neither of my kids is likely ever to experience discrimination based on race or ethnicity. They look like little blonde cherubs and speak accentless English.

But their dad is from Argentina. They have a large extended family in Buenos Aires that they’re very close to, and the experience of belonging to Argentine culture is important to them.

So what to put on the form? As it turned out the answer was easy. Like the census forms, our school asks about race and ethnicity as separate questions, and makes it easy to say that my kid is both “white” and ethnically “Hispanic or Latino”.

What fascinated me was the way people approached trying to answer this question when I posed it on my blog. I got questions about what foods my kids eat at home, what holidays we celebrate, how often we talk to their grandparents. As if there were some careful cultural calculus that could be performed to decide if my family were “really” Latino or not.

It seems strange that these questions come down to murky things like what’s on the dinner table, but it’s a calculus countless families are making as they try to fit their racial and ethnic diversity into a set of tricky boxes. For most of us the answers are clear, but for a growing number of people the boxes seem increasingly insufficient. The NYT story includes examples of students listing four or more answers to the race and ethnicity questions.

I honestly don’t know how my kids will answer this question when they get to college. Does the fact that they can easily “pass” as white mean they shouldn’t lay claim to a minority identity, or is it important to hold that identity because not all Latin American immigrants are disadvantaged and marginalized? Many, like my husband, have great jobs and stable middle-class lives. I’m sure I’ll keep asking questions about ethnicity and identity as my kids grow.

How do you decide which parts of your heritage “count”? Have you wondered what you should answer to these questions on your kids school admission forms?

Photo: Sugar Pond

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