How to ask the race question

May 18th, 20115:51 pm @

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Through my day job at Sustainable Seattle, I’ve become heavily involved in a project to gather data about happiness with which we hope to inform public policy and get individuals thinking about what really matters in their lives. Our main instrument to do this is a survey that we’re trying to get everybody to take and more than 6,000 people have taken so far. It’s a wonderful tool for making people stop and think but a somewhat flawed tool for gathering data, so I’m working on updates.

I don’t get to just dive in and rewrite the survey because that will be done by a team of people who between them have a lot of expertise I lack. I do get to make improvements to the online survey app and I do have some freedom to tinker with which demographic questions we ask and how. One of the things I’ll be doing this week is adding a race question to the demographics page.

I had initially been a strong advocate of leaving this question out, for reasons that I now think were hopelessly naïve. The main reason I wanted it left out is that race is a social construct that only means as much as we decide to make it mean. Idealistically, I would love to stop the world from talking about race altogether. The trouble is that while race is a social construct, racism is real both as a lamentably common individual prejudice and as a series of institutional barriers to success, and not talking about this doesn’t make it go away. Instead it makes the institutional side harder to address and sends a misleading signal that we don’t care about the issue, so the survey will now include a race question.

That, though, opens its own can of worms. The secondary reason I don’t like asking race questions is that it’s impossible to ask the question right. We have two options: make everyone write their own in (a nightmare for data analysis!), or make people choose from a frustrating list. As an example of why these lists are so frustrating, consider the “Caucasian” category that is often what I am expected to check. It means different things in different contexts:

  • Its origin is synonymous with “Indo-European”, in that it describes an inferred migration of people out from the Caucasus, into most of Europe and some of Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, bringing a language family with them.
  • In the US, it’s generally used as a shorthand for “white”.
  • In Singapore it seems to be shorthand for “of European descent”.
  • In Russia it means “from the Caucasus region”.

So is an Iranian a Caucasian? By one or two of those definitions, yes, but how many people here in the US would recognise Iranians as such? As a Jew, am I? I fit the other two definitions, but I don’t check this box – partly because my ancestors were not part of the Caucasian migration and partly because I think it’s important to be counted, I usually write in “Jew”. But I suspect most people round here would tell me I’m Caucasian and I should stop making life difficult.

And then there’s the question of resolution. Which groups we lump together and which we split is very much a product of which questions we’re trying to answer. Given that our purpose is to get at how big an effect racism has on peoples’ happiness, we could almost get away with asking “are you a member of a race or ethnic group that is discriminated against in your country?”, but we already ask whether people feel discriminated against in their own lives and we want more objective information to go with that. Yesterday I found a fascinating reference for the diverse ways race questions are asked around the world: everything from Canada’s breakdown of First Nations into different subgroups from those we talk about in the U.S. to Brazil’s shades-of-brown palette and Bulgaria’s “Bulgarian or Turk or Gypsy or Other”.

For the time being, we’re running with the US Census categories because at least those are sort of understood where we operate, and we can credit/blame the Census Bureau for the particular selection. But we really want this survey to make sense internationally. We have a Spanish translation almost ready to go, Arabic and Chinese in the works, and groups interested in using the instrument in a couple of far-flung other countries already. The other internationalization issues are relatively easy to work out—the update I’m doing this week will make it handle non-US location coding properly, and there are a few questions that need slight rewording—but I still really don’t know how to ask the race question right and there’s no “official” answer from the UN to guide us. Is there an appropriate universal way?