In market research, one of the first questions in a screener generally asks about individuals’ race or ethnicity. Typically the respondent can choose from 4 or 5 groups: White/Caucasian; African American; Hispanic/Latino; Asian; Native American, and then sometimes the catch all ‘other’ group. While this is valuable in some respects, classifying individuals into 4 or 5 broad categories can undermine the complexity of self-identification. While other screener questions revolving around income and geography can help put the pieces together, are we missing the boat by categorizing and classifying narrowly by race? Are there better ways to get an idea of identity?
When I taught Introduction to Anthropology, one of my most enjoyable lectures and critical thinking exercises was on the topic of race and ethnicity. It has become familiar to think of these terms as synonymous, but what happens when we dig deeper?
Race is a term with biological origins meaning a sub-species. We believe skin color dictates our race, but that is only because our culture gives meaning to that specific trait. In Jared Diamond’s article, Race without Color, (http://discovermagazine.com/1994/nov/racewithoutcolor444#.UYBcjMq8GSo), he maintains that if we group humans by other traits such as fingerprints that most Europeans and Africans would be together in one race, Jews and some Indonesians in another, and so on. Race as a biological concept just does not apply to humans. An everyday example of race would be breeds of dogs, where humans artificially create isolation through selective breading. Humans as a species on the other hand, have never had significant geographic or artificial isolation to develop a genetically distinct cluster of traits that define a sub-species. In fact, there is greater genetic diversity within ‘races’ than between them. (http://www.aaanet.org/stmts/racepp.htm).
A way to more accurately group people together, and move away from racial essentialism, is through ethnicity. People’s ethnicity is the result of shared beliefs, habits and customs due to a common background. For example, ‘Hispanics’ are grouped based on shared language and religious and cultural backgrounds which help ultimately define a person’s beliefs. These commonalities are often much more relevant in one’s identity than their skin color. However, due to our racial history of classifying groups of people by skin color we have, in a way, isolated these groups. Different social status and geography has lead to cultural diversity among ethnic groups in America. As a result, most of the difference between the ‘races’ is rooted in cultural and not biological backgrounds
So if ethnicity defines a person’s beliefs, moving away from race and towards ethnicity should allow us to focus on the perceptions common amongst this group. Ethnicity is much more complex than skin color and this complexity incorporates factors ranging from religion, income, geography, and so on. All of these (and others) are variables that contribute to one’s self-identity. While it’s not always practical to group by ethnicities given sample sizes and the complexity of the term, as researchers when we do have the ability to get a more accurate, holistic picture by offering more options or letting individuals self-describe, we should think about doing so.