Why I Had a Hard Time Filling Out My Kid's Race Survey
Audio version of this article is available on the There's No Time to Explain Podcast #17 at 02:40
This week I registered my daughter for kindergarten. I hope they are ready for her. I expect within a month she will either be the queen of her class or have a seat separated from the rest of the kids. Those are not mutually exclusive. While filling out the registration paperwork, I was confronted by my old buddy, the race and ethnicity questionnaire. I’ve always taken more than a passing interest in this ritual because 1) I used to work in Human Resources; 2) I like knowing how data is used and abused in our lives; and 3) I stand astride two seemingly contradictory opinions about race, the first, echoed by many a fair-minded friend, that race shouldn't matter and the second, also echoed by another set of fair-minded friends, that inequities among the races are an institutional problem that demands an institutional solution.
My daughter is an amusing mix of ferocity, defiance, femininity and raw goofiness. I think of these things when I think of her. If you asked me to describe her, I would list a hundred other things before I came to define her by her race. I am half Mexican and half Puerto Rican, or as most would say, Hispanic. My wife is mostly a mixed bag of European descent, “White” as they say. On my father's side, there is a recessive blonde gene which presents (50% percent of the time according to the science) when a dark haired human from this family procreates with a blonde human. Thus, my daughter is blonde and fair-skinned despite the common misunderstanding that feeds conventional wisdom about recessive traits. She does not have the luxury of having her ethnicity assumed; it needs to be asserted. I go to check all the right boxes to say so, but I am confused by how the survey is arranged.
I have told both my children (girl, age four and boy, age eight) that they need to be mindful of their ethnicity and never to deny it or let people assume they are “White.” I have reasons for this that are mostly about making sure my kids don’t casually take advantage of white privilege, but also about them appreciating the differences in culture and to never doubt themselves if they see things differently than others. I half-jokingly refer to my glass of milk analogy; any amount of chocolate in the milk makes it chocolate milk. Some may take offense to that, assuming I am implying that chocolate or darkness is somehow making the milk less pure, or that the milk wasn’t good enough on its own, but I intend neither. I just think it's important for them to be mindful of their entire lineage, and I have seen up-close and personal the nasty familial and social politics of a light-skinned person who denies their heritage and gets a little too comfortable being considered “white.” The entire world will assume my children are "white." I need them to know and say otherwise.
Hispanic as an ethnic identity is fraught with all sorts of complications, but it boils down to people whose cultures were dominated by the Spanish Empire, and by that process, assimilated Spanish culture and language. Yes, by that definition Filipinos are Hispanic, too. (AND, I can’t believe I have to say this, but I HAVE run into this ignorance before, SPANIARDS OF SPAIN ARE EUROPEAN...unless they aren't, i.e. the Moors). Of course, fair skin, blondness, and blue eyes are regularly occurring features in people descended from areas with heavy Spanish influence, while darker-skinned Hispanics and those with native surnames descended from people farther from the centers of Spanish control. If you have a Spanish last name and your aunt makes an amazing seafood rice dish, you are probably Hispanic. According to the US Census, Hispanic isn’t considered a race and isn't listed as such on forms. All Mexican school kids know, “Hispanic isn't a race, it's an ethnicity,” and if your race isn't listed, check “white.” The ethnicity section, composed of one question, only asks, “Hispanic or Non-Hispanic?”
By most standards I am a fully \-assimilated American, culturally speaking. Speaking Spanish was lost in my family a generation ago. I am educated, civically engaged, and don't participate in stereotypical Machismo culture. Several times in my life, people who speak to me on the phone admit to assuming I was blonde when they meet me in person. Just thinking of how to describe my assimilation in the prior sentences was fraught with so much concern that I wasn’t stereotyping Hispanics by stating the inverse. I have a complicated relationship with my heritage and struggle every day to define what parts of me are my roots and which parts of me are just because I’m kind of a weirdo. I know I process things differently than most of my “White” friends. I see different sides of issues, take opposing sides in arguments. I’m far to the left on issues like worker's rights and far to the right on issues like child rearing. I certainly know that every human is an idiosyncratic mix of opinions and habits, and yet, I’m just starting to understand that many things I thought were me out of step with society are more likely me not recognizing some cultural influence that put me at odds with the dominant culture. You’ll notice that nothing I said here has anything to do with my color. I assume that the cultural things passed onto me by my family will be passed on to my kids, and this is part of the reason I want to check that “Hispanic" box on the survey. It's not about color, but about heritage; and by their heritage my fair-skinned, blonde kids are Hispanic.
I know that checking the little box on institutional race and ethnicity surveys isn't about validating my culture. For the most part, every option offered is tied directly to some program an institution is trying to qualify for, or some hiring or enrollment standard an organization is trying to meet. I remember a time when South Asian Indian wasn't included in most of these surveys, not because they were forgotten or unimportant, but because no program or standard required collecting that data point. I have seen negative reactions from people who didn't find their ethnicity listed and eye-rolling from “white” people who take the omission of their particular European sub-culture as an offense, “Why isn’t Scandinavian-American listed here?”
As I saw it, I had two options on the race portion of the survey, “White” or “Native American/Inuit.” “Decline to State” wasn’t an option. I selected "Native American/Inuit" with a twinge of doubt. “White” felt completely wrong, because if we are counting heads for hiring, planning, program dollars, representation in ethnicity stats, answering “White” is equivalent to “Non-Applicable.” Starting about 50,000 years ago, Paleolithic people began trekking over low-lying lands and glaciers connecting the Asian and North American continent, now submerged under the Bering Strait. It cannot be denied that Hispanics are of this native people's lineage. I decided to go with this answer as the least wrong of all possible options. However, due to the irreparable damage done to Native Peoples by the American government and the financial advantages of being able to claim native blood legally for individuals and for the benefits for institutions who can show they serve Native populations, I knew that I might, in some small way, be over-representing the needs of my particular student.
Feeling cheeky, I called the school district to re-inquire what Hispanics were supposed to mark for race in this section. The answer I got was, “Check whatever you like, and if you leave it blank, we default to ‘White.’” I did not like that answer at all. I don’t object because I want the system to validate my kid’s ethnicity. I’m a data geek, and that sounds like a horrible way to record information to be useful. By defaulting non-answers to "White," the school district may be skewing the numbers, screwing themselves out of valuable dollars. By separating out ethnicity and race questions with no option to choose a race that comports with the common understanding of how people view their heritage, institutions risk high rates of non-compliance on their forms, more people who will be listed "White" by default. Hard earned tax dollars allocated for individual schools may not be delivered because of these results. For god’s sake, real estate agents considered these numbers when deciding which neighborhoods they are going to rebrand and gentrify next. I had no option that both satisfied my understanding of the process and adequately represented my kiddo for the reasons they ask these questions.
And, why not “white?” My wife is “white” as is said of her; I certainly love her dearly. I have no objection to “White” people, nor do I feel like my kid really needs access to any portion of the dollars that come (or don’t come, as it the case) in the form of free lunch programs or dual immersion language classes that may be available to schools that report their various ethnic enrollment stats. My wife and I have a solid foothold in the middle class where the mortgage is paid, the fridge is full, the wifi is working, but sometimes we need to forgo the latest movies for Netflix night. If Hispanics are ascending, it's still important to count us. You don't stop checking in on your stocks once they start doing well. Knowing the ethnic makeup of your enrollment or constituency helps in unseen ways that propagate throughout the institution and society at-large. Assuming everyone who declines to state their race or doesn't feel that any answer applies to them is “white” only serves to reinforce “whiteness” as the dominant culture and sets up default assumptions in dozens of ways downstream.
“Whiteness” as a racial identity developed in the 19th and early 20th century in America. Given that most Europeans are light skinned, the term simply has no traction in the Old World. The cultural divides there tend to be nationalistic, religious, or economic. However, in the supposed melting pot of America, as masses of immigrants sought to make their way in this new land, poor European immigrants strengthened their social and business connections to wealthier merchants and bosses by claiming “whiteness” as a mask for Old World prejudices. “Whiteness” became the identity that allowed poor Irish, Russian, Scottish, German immigrants to insinuate themselves with the rich and climb the economic and social ladder faster than their darker competitors. These competitors were immigrants from all over the world and freed slaves who were all vying for work in a saturated labor market. When I hear modern day descendants of Europeans feign persecution about not having their preferred box to check or mockingly ask where their “Pride” month is, it's tough not to remind them of the history of their “whiteness” included intentionally distancing themselves from their heritage to achieve economic ascendancy. Certainly there are pockets of people who still proudly participate in their ethnic culture, such as Greek and Scottish festivals that are annual occurrences in our neck of the woods, but “Whiteness” in and of itself isn’t a culture. It's a non-culture, and intentionally so.
And so, if any amount of chocolate in the milk makes chocolate milk, and I cannot abide “white” as a cultural identity for my mixed-race kids, what is a guy, who overthinks everything to do? I'll tell you what I do: I gripe to my Facebook friends about it. Imagine that every thought I’ve expressed above, 2000 words worth, as a social media post, just looks like, “GAH, Race Surveys. WTF! Amirite?” Beyond the supportive comments, which I appreciated, I got a few unappreciative responses. The first I’ll call the “Good buddy thinking he's saying the right thing,” which goes along the lines of, “I don’t think of you as a Mexican.” I’m going to pretend that I don’t understand what that implies. The next is the “Human” response which goes, “We are all Human, this sort of thing shouldn't matter,” and various iterations of that. At this point in history, given all the recent examples of institutional racism displayed almost daily on the news, you'd need to be monstrously uninformed to hold an opinion like that or just willfully ignorant. I got the “Hope for a better future,” response, which is a version of the “Human,” response that sounds like, “Wouldn't this all be a better place when we don’t need to worry about this?” Yeah, sure. Um, Let me know when that time comes. I’ll be just over here, waiting for that. I got the “Tyler Durden” which is basically, “I hate these surveys, I just put whatever I feel like to fuck with them.” Some people just want to watch the world burn, I guess. I did manage to elicit one legitimate super-racist response from someone, who was frankly already on my wacko list, so that was an easy unfriend-and-block. Except the very last guy, I consider every single one of these responders to be a friend and a few were family members. I guess I should note that every poster that sought to invalidate my concern in the ways I described above was a “white” person. I'd never deny that individually each, I'm sure, arrived at their opinion in a thoughtful way, but en mass, it's undeniable that there are trends that cannot adequately be countered by individuals and are only evident as such when viewed from a particular vantage point.
I don’t have a solution here, but I’m holding the problem up to the light so we can all get a good long look at it. If we want useful data on the ethnic representation of our citizens, we need to ask relevant questions in ways that make practical sense and encourage people to complete the surveys. We need to seek information in a manner that allows us to fill out these surveys in good faith, and we need to express why this data is critical for planning and hiring. Whether you think I'm a big ol' dummy or right on the money, a school registration survey shouldn't stop me in my tracks; at the end of the day, I just want to answer the questions in a way that makes sense for me and is useful to my kid's school. The school district gets bonus points if those categories agree with history. Regardless if I'm right or wrong, to my friends who don't think this is any sort of issue worth considering as I have, I love you dearly. I challenge you to examine why you believe that these issues are unimportant, and I know a guy you could talk to if wanted to explore this deeper (Hint, it’s me). I think institutional problems require institutional solutions, and if we want to be a fair and equitable society, we need to seek a way to address the inequities that we don't see on the face of things but are only revealed when we have functional data, properly gathered and analyzed.