Check the Box

Hispanic Community September 2021 PREMIUM
Can that effort to self-identify justify the reasons personal data is gathered? Can the box ever backfire?

Race. Identity. Ethnicity. Nationality. When applying for jobs, housing, colleges, or taking surveys like the census, one is asked to check the box in terms of how one  identifies oneself.  How an individual chooses to identify is personal, but identifiers can also be placed on groups of people, causing misinterpretations, cries of racism and colonialism, and efforts to find an equitable place in this multicultural world.

“How do you show preference of an identity?” asks Michael Vincent Arce, a professor of sociology at Palomar College and Mira Costa College in San Diego. “They think there’s a singular identity, but we’re more complex than that. There are many layers to one identity.”

He has searched for identity markers himself. In his studies, the focus of his thesis was:  “What does it mean to be a Puerto Rican in Southern California?” Born and raised in Oceanside, a community in San Diego, California, there was a heavy Mexican influence and black culture was also celebrated. He had no strong identity. His mother was white. His dad was black. Both spoke Spanish.

He asked, “Am I black? Am I white?”  He asked his mother how she identified. “As white as her skin is, she never considered herself white. ”That gave him more insight into his sociology studies. “We force people to choose. That ties into the problem of the box.”

Definitions of Race and Identity

There are several ways to identify an individual. Simplified, race refers to physical characteristics that define a person, such as skin color, hair color and texture, eye color, facial features. Ethnicity can refer to cultural characteristics of a specific group such as language, religion, social customs, food. Nationality refers to citizenship linked to a legal entity, a specific nation.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines race as “any one of the groups that humans are often divided into based on physical traits regarded as common among people of shared ancestry.”

The workshop “So is It Latino, Latinx, Hispanic? Come Learn About Latino/a/x Terminology” was presented at Palomar College prior to the start of the 2021 fall semester by Carmelino Cruz, an ESL Matriculation Coordinator, Cynthia Cordova, a student services counselor, and Eduardo Aguilar, an assistant professor of Chicano Studies. The goal was to educate faculty and staff about categories of self-identification with historical context and help them better understand and support this community, especially students and peers, through a guide and discussion on identity terminology. 

Their slide presentation showed how Latinx come from many different backgrounds and that sometimes “the only thing some of us may have in common is that we come from generations of colonization. The importance of one’s heritage, history, and journey can be complex, which makes it difficult to categorize a diverse group of people from different regions into one.”

According to an August 2021 Gallup poll, most Hispanic adults (57%) say it does not matter to them which self-identifying term is used. However, one in four (23%) prefer “Hispanic,” 15% prefer “Latino,” and 4% preferred “Latinx”.  A December 2019 Pew Research Center study of approximately 3,000 Latino adults found only 23% of U.S. adults who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino had heard of the term “Latinx.” Younger, U.S.-born, English-speaking individuals were more aware of the term.

Regardless of their background, however, many believe they cannot be defined or self-identify by a singular term.

U. S. Census: Limited Choices

The U.S. Census Bureau has collected data on race since its first count in 1790 and on ethnicity since 1970. The bureau’s website says that “Through 1950, census-takers commonly determined the race of the people they counted. From 1960 on, Americans could choose their own race.” In 1980, respondents were asked to identify whether they had Hispanic origins, no matter their race. In 2000, Americans could include themselves in more than one racial category.

The 2020 Census asked four demographic questions for each person living in a household: age, sex, ethnicity, and race. Ethnicity is related to Hispanic, Latino or Spanish-speaking origin and could be of any race. Heritage, nationality, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before arriving in the United States could be a part of origin.

There are only six basic race categories: 1) American Indian or Alaska native, 2) Asian, 3) Black or African American, 4) Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, 5) White and 6) “Some Other Race.” However, there were 15 options within the categories. Respondents could mark more than one box for their race or could write-in other origins they identified with.

Clearer census questions and more options resulted in a more accurate reflection of how people self-identify. The Hispanic or Latino population, which includes people of any race, grew 23% since 2010—to 62.1 million in 2020.

What Data the Boxes Provide

Data about race and ethnicity serves many purposes, such as helping federal agencies monitor compliance with anti-discrimination laws, such as the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights issues. According to the bureau website, “States use these data to meet legislative redistricting principles… Race data also are used to promote equal employment opportunities and to assess racial disparities in health and environmental risks.”

Can that effort to self-identify justify the reasons personal data is gathered? Can the box ever backfire?

Creating a “Boxless” Future

There is a fluidity with labels and identity. The Gallup poll showed that preferences for self-identification can change over time, just as American language and general terminology also change.

The French belief in universalism offers a different perspective of race and ethnicity. According to an article by the Harvard International Review, this “color-blind” approach “stemmed from the idea that human nature is not influenced by cultural distinctions or historical variations. It is an ideal intended to unite all French citizens under a single French identity, regardless of country of origin or ancestral roots… the government implements policies guided by geographic and socioeconomic factors, with the goal of improving lives in all regions and neighborhoods.”

The Palomar College workshop leaders cited that color blindness or the “one race, the human race” mentality does not help in validating the experiences and journeys of non-privileged oppressed peoples. Today’s Latinx and their communities did not get to choose the labels placed upon them, but they can reclaim them and decide how they want to identify.

Being aware and respectful of individual self-identifying choices is also important. Taking a step back can perhaps also offer a glimpse of what matters more than labels to the Latinx community in the bigger scheme of things.

Arce seems to see the importance of this wider-angle inclusivity. “We need opportunities to connect with each other, disrupt narratives of whiteness, uplift each other, share an identity. We need to find a shared community and a sense of humanity. Then we can move forward collectively.” 

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