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  • Writer's pictureAwatif Yahya

Race and Ethnicity Questions: do they still make sense?

I keep a list of “only in America”, where I log my observations on how things are done differently compared to other parts of the world. For instance, I find it fascinating celebrating two mother’s and father’s days annually, the international one and the American one, my parents are always happy to receive two wishes a year each! It’s an advantage! Then, there are US norms that are somewhat puzzling!

Setting aside the fact a dime coin is smaller than a nickel but worth more, something that drove me crazy when I first moved to the US, the difference between race and ethnicity has been my challenge from the very start. And I still mix the two up!

The concept of these categories is foreign to me. I lived in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, but never had to identify myself using the race-ethnicity categories. Furthermore, I traveled to 25% of the world and never had to use these categories in my international travels neither. Yet, in the US, this question is in every official form, questionnaire and/or job application.

When you search the definition of “race”, Google will tell you it is the division of humankind having distinct physical characteristics, sharing the same culture, history, language …etc. My favorite definition for race is "a group of people descended from a common ancestor”. Ok, so what’s “ethnicity” then? A quick Google search defines ethnicity as the “state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition”. Notice ‘culture’ appears in both definitions!

Being Arab, these definitions pose a big dilemma for me. As Arabs, we speak one language (granted with different accents), and have almost identical cultures, but we certainly do not share the same physical characteristics! We have blond Arabs, brown hair Arabs, black hair and black skin Arabs, short, tall, blue eyed, hazel eyed, long hair, short hair, no hair …. You see where I am going with this? I assume other “race” groups have similar dilemmas.

The United States census recognizes six official races: White, Black or African American, Asian, Hispanic or Latino, American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander. None I identify with, so imagine my surprise when I found I was “White” under the US categorization system.

This got me thinking. I started wondering about the complex family structures of modern times. How do children of mixed race parents identify themselves? And what about children adopted from one continent but raised in another? What race and ethnicity will they pick? Will they feel connected to their biological culture or their upbringing culture?

Humankind has evolved and merged into very complex social structures. Like it or not, our conventional definitions of family units and social groups have changed. There is much more to us than “race” and “ethnicity”. And so, I asked myself: how do these two categories serve us today? Do the numbers generated from these questions benefit us? What do these statistics mean anyway?

I know what you are thinking, diversity of course! How can we claim to be diverse if we can’t first put people in different categories, then mix them up to tick that diversity box? Well done HR!

But let’s dig deeper into this concept. Does putting a Chinese employee in a team of Kenyans get you diversity points? How about putting a female Arab in a group of Norwegian men? Will that get creativity flowing and enable a company to claim its fame for diversity and inclusion?

Allow me to demonstrate with a personal example. I come from a big family with many siblings, my thoughts on certain social topics differ drastically from some of my same-parent siblings. However, my partner and I think alike despite the fact we are of different genders, races and upbringing. If you were seeking different aspects of a particular challenge, putting myself and my partner in a group will not achieve that objective since we think alike. However, grouping me with one of my biological siblings in a brainstorming session will achieve that objective since we have different thought processes. Puzzling indeed!

I see two paths to diversity, I call them: 1) Diversity Mirage and 2) True Diversity. The first, by nature of its title, is unsustainable as a strategy for diversity. Differentiating on age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation …. etc. gives the illusion of diversity. True diversity is dependent on diversity of thought, experiences, skills and values. This is what we want in our social and business groups, we need to make sure we get a different spectrum of a challenging problem by bringing different trains of thought to brainstorm the best way forward. In other words, we are looking for true diversity, not superficial diversity.

Suppose we take this question out altogether, and never ask people to identify with a particular race or ethnicity, will we be moving forward to eliminate racism? Or will it take us back few steps?

In this blog, I share my humble two cents worth opinion, another American saying, hoping it gives you food for thought!

Am I missing something? Did I not get the point of race and ethnicity questions? I look forward to hearing your views on the matter and help me with my dilemma!

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