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Five tips for asking about race and ethnicity in surveys and forms


Here are five tips for respectful and meaningful collection of demographic data about race & ethnicity: 


1: Ask about “ethnicity” not “race”:

Two reasons why:

A: Race is a social construct used by societies to classify people. The modern concept of race has its origins in colonialism, created by the West to justify slavery and the subjugation of native peoples by incorrectly linking skin color to intelligence, behavior, and morality.

By contrast, ethnicity is an objective term which refers to a common identity shaped by both genetic traits and a shared group history.

B: It’s usually incorrectly applied. “Hispanic” is not a race, and “Asian” means “a person from Asia” — which includes India, Saudi Arabia, Israel and parts of Russia.

2: Questions about race/ethnicity should be optional:

While whites will usually mark their race without hesitation, the history of special treatment for other groups means that member of minority groups are less likely to answer this question correctly. By making the question optional, you capture those unwilling to answer, rather than have them mis-classify themselves.

3: Use “white” not “Caucasian”

The word “Caucasian” is based on an obsolete theory of racial classification, along with “Negroid” and “Mongoloid.” It is now used today in the United States to mean “of European ancestry” mostly by people who are uncomfortable talking about race and hide behind a scientific-sounding term. However, biologically the “Caucasoid” race refers to skeletal anatomy, not skin color - dating to when scientists thought that skull measurements reflected intelligence and moral qualities. Biologically Caucasian people may not have a light skin color or be from Europe - for example, Aryan Indians. “White” is the term used by most reputable surveys such as the US Census.

4: Allow multiple choices when asking about race/ethnicity

Forcing a single choice for racial questions (as in dropdown) dates back to the “one-drop rule” - the idea that even “one drop” of black blood makes a person non-white. While the “one-drop” rule has been used to justify many shameful policies in the US, it has never been codified into federal law and is outdated. People of mixed-ethnicity should be able to select any and all groups which represent their identity.




5: Consider whether you really need to ask participants demographic questions

As a non-profit, you may want to report on which groups participate in your programs. However, consider the cost of asking questions along with the benefit. Every additional question creates a barrier for participants to complete your survey or form, and that barrier is probably higher for minority group members, as explained above.

If you are asking binary, mandatory demographic questions for a one-day event as part of a goal to increase minority participation consider that you may be doing more harm than good. Do you have a plan for how you want to use this information? Have you considered other source for this data? For example, Quantcast can report the demographic of your website's traffic, and post-event surveys can be used in place of questions in registration forms.





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