Thursday, December 8, 2011

"Prefer Not to Respond" About Your Race? Too Bad!

Imagine that you are a student applying for a program, one of the application questions asks for your race, and you leave it blank or check "prefer not to respond." Then, in an interview with the director of the program, you're told that you are not required to self-identify, but if you don't, a racial designation will be chosen for you for reporting purposes.

How would you feel?

Under the Department of Education guidelines, this is exactly how this situation could play out.

The most recent recommendations can be found in the Federal Register Vol. 72, No. 202 and were published Friday, October 19, 2007. You can see the full text here. The section that pertains to the reporting of race is labeled "Final Guidelines on Maintaining, Collecting, and Reporting Racial and Ethnic Data to the U.S. Department of Education."

According to these guidelines, racial and ethnic data collection is to be done through a two-part question, first asking if the respondent is Hispanic and then asking for racial self-identification. The question looks something like this, though it can vary slightly depending on how the program words it:
1) Hispanic/Latino of any race; and for individuals who are non-Hispanic/Latino only
2) American Indian or Alaska Native
3) Asian
4) Black or African American
5) Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
6) White
7) Two or more races
The Department made these changes to avoid "double reporting of persons identifying with multiple races." It also allows institutions to "report only ethnic data for individuals who self-identify as being Hispanic/Latino, even though individuals will have had the opportunity to designate racial information" to avoid "double reporting of individuals who have self-identified as having Hispanic/Latino ethnicity and who have also provided racial information."

Also under these guidelines, reporters are instructed to assign racial designation to students who have not reported:
If adequate opportunity has been provided for respondents to self-identify and respondents still do not answer the questions, observer identification should be used
As someone who works in education and someone who is concerned about racial equality, I appreciate the attention to nuances in racial data reporting, and I do think that the Department of Ed has a difficult task in determining the best way to handle this data.

However, as someone who understands race to be a fluid identification that is largely based in social construct and someone who has a biracial daughter who deserves the freedom to figure out a racial identity that works for her, I am frustrated with the implications of assigning racial designation to people against their will.

The background section of this document indicates that some people were opposed to the adoption of these rules, but it appears that the nuance of this implication is not fully fleshed out:
Generally the commenters opposed . . . asserted that the changes would undermine the Department's collection of reliable statistical data . . . Other commenters objected to collecting any individual racial and ethnic data because they viewed the collection of racial and ethnic data as being contrary to the principle of racial equality.
These oppositions represent people who are most concerned with reliable data and people who oppose all racial identification questions. There's a middle ground opposition here, though. I am opposed to this questioning not because I am opposed to race-based questions (I do think that tracking this data can help us identify (and thus help us eradicate) racial inequalities and disparities), but because to assign someone a racial designation against his/her will is disrespectful and, quite frankly, mind-boggling.

The section that further explains the process for identifying race through "observation" is even more perplexing:
While the Department recognizes that obtaining data by observer identification is not as accurate as obtaining data through a self-identification process, places some burden on school district staff, and may be contrary to the wishes of those refusing to self-identify, it is better than the alternative of having no information [emphasis mine]
So, the Department recognizes that assigning a racial designation may go against the participant's wishes, but they prefer data at any cost. They also recognize that this data may be less accurate, but inaccurate data is apparently better than no data.

The part that really, really bothers me though is this:
Additionally, this approach should assist in discouraging refusals to self-identify because respondents are informed that if they fail to provide the racial and ethnic information someone from the school district will provide it on their behalf. In some instances, this may result in self-identification
Even though the guidelines later state that no one is to "tell an individual how that individual should classify himself or herself," this statement is a clear attempt to bully students into making a self-identification they have chosen not to make. And, while it may not tell an individual how to self-identify, it certainly tells them that self-identification is preferential to random assignment.

Finally, the Department recognizes the potential for complications when minors (elementary and secondary students) self-identify in ways different from their parents. To solve this problem, they declare:
at the elementary and secondary school level, the identification of a student's racial and ethnic categories is to be made primarily by the parents or guardians 
There are plenty of reasons a person may choose not to self-identify as any racial designation. Perhaps that person is multiracial and has yet to determine an identification that fits his/her identity; we are, after all, talking about students who are likely in periods of personal growth and philosophical exploration. Perhaps that person has a negative association with race because of exposure to racism and finds refusing to identify to have a shielding effect. Perhaps that person finds the question of race insulting. Perhaps that person considers racial identification to be a private matter. Perhaps that person sees race to be a fabricated concept and doesn't believe that it should be used.

Whatever the reason, a person has the right to not disclose racial self-identification. To try to bully that student out of that right by threatening him/her with a random assignment is unacceptable. Furthermore, assigning a racial category through "observation" brings up a lot of problematic questions.

What makes someone qualified to make an "observation" about someone's race? Is it based entirely on phenotype? Who's to say what someone's skin color, hair texture, etc means about his/her race? Is it based on interactions with that student, and--if so--then isn't making assumptions about that person's racial identity based on those interactions a form of stereotyping?

The Department shouldn't put educators in that position, and they should respect the autonomy of students who wish to keep their racial identification undisclosed.

UPDATE: After I posted this, I remembered a few resources that might help illuminate just why telling someone to make an "observer identification" about someone's race is more complicated that it might seem.

1 comment:

  1. You said: "I am opposed to this questioning not because I am opposed to race-based questions (I do think that tracking this data can help us identify (and thus help us eradicate) racial inequalities and disparities), but because to assign someone a racial designation against his/her will is disrespectful and, quite frankly, mind-boggling."

    These are my sentiments exactly. It's such a catch 22, this race identification issue. This is a very enlightening post, as I didn't know about this arbitrary visual racial designation practice.