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I’ve made a decision. I’m no longer going to fill out the race/ethnicity/culture question on surveys anymore. You know, the question that asks you to indicate whether you are White or Caucasian or Hispanic or Latino or African-American or Asian American or Pacific Islander or Native American or whatever other little box surveyors want to plug you into.

My decision has arisen from an uncomfortable exchange that occurred at a meeting this week. During the exchange, it was pointed out that Hispanic or Latino people can be Caucasian. It was something I had never considered before, but of course makes perfect sense when examining history. Some Hispanics trace their ancestry back to Spain, which is included among historically Caucasian countries.

Why, then, has Caucasian come to mean “white,” but not Hispanic or Latino?

After the confusion caused by the uncomfortable exchange, a friend of mine posted a link to help clear things up: Hispanics and Latinos: A Culture, Not a Race!

This article points out that Hispanics and Latinos can be white, black, Asian, Indian, and mestizo – basically any race. What makes Hispanics Hispanic is a shared cultural legacy and common language, although there is plenty of diversity within this larger classification.

Why do surveys, particularly government surveys, insist on listing Hispanic or Latino as though this cultural group is a racial group? (No wonder those of us who don’t have intimate knowledge of this culture are confused. )

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that the classifications are not truly appropriate all the way around. The boxes given for us to choose from are like comparing apples to bananas; they don’t compare things equally.

Hispanic or Latino describes a culture; Pacific Islander describes a geographic origin; Native American is supposed to describe the original peoples in what is now the United States (some Latinos also fit this designation), but could just as easily be used to describe anyone born in the country; African-American can describe race and ancestry; and then we come to White, which describes only skin color, but says nothing about ancestry or culture.

The whole answer scheme for this question is a mess and it doesn’t do justice to the country’s (or the world’s) true diversity.

I think surveys need to be rewritten in order to properly account for our racial and cultural diversity. Instead of asking one question with predetermined check-boxes, I’d have two, maybe three, sections.

One section would ask for birthplace in order to determine country of origin. (Did you know that Dave Matthews could be considered an African-American? He was born in South Africa to parents who were U.S. citizens.)

The second section would ask for cultural association and/or ancestry. While it would be easier for surveyors to supply check-boxes for this, I’d advise against it. I think people should be able to write in their cultural associations and ancestries. Specificity would be encouraged. A Native American could say he is from the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and has Anishinaabeg, French, and English ancestry. I could claim my Swedish, Danish, Polish, and French-Austrian heritage and say that I associate with a general Minnesotan or Mid-Western culture.

I’m iffy on the third section because describing people by skin tone seems to be what causes rancor between races, but if there had to be some identifier along these lines, I’d supply a gridded skin-tone color chart and allow people to choose the color that most closely matches their skin. The grid would assist surveyors in compiling results. I’d make this an optional question, not only in the interest of personal sensitivity, but also to take into account those who are color blind or have other eyesight issues.

As this sort of nuanced questioning isn’t likely in the foreseeable future, I’ll stick with my decision to skip the race/ethnicity question on surveys. Maybe I’ll write in “homo sapiens.”

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