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  • Writer's pictureAwatif Yahya

Race and Ethnicity Categories: Do They Still Make Sense?

The words “race” and “ethnicity” are excessively used in the US, albeit different from their intended dictionary definitions.

“Race” is defined as the division of humankind having distinct physical characteristics and sharing the same culture, history and language. In essence: "a group of people descending from a common ancestor”. Ethnicity is defined as the “state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition”. Notice the word ‘culture’ appears in both definitions!

The US Census lists five racial groups: (1) American Indian or Alaska Native, (2) Asian, (3) Black or African American, (4) Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and (5) White. Ethnicity is listed separately from race and refers to Hispanic or Latino origin. But, as we know, and in most cases, identities are much more complex than these lists provide.

Race and ethnicity categories, and their correct use, have been my personal challenge. Having lived in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, I was never asked to identify myself using the race-ethnicity categories, nor was I asked to use these identities in my international travels. Yet, in the US, race and ethnicity questions are in every official form, questionnaire and/or job application.

As an Arab, these categories posed a big dilemma. Arabs speak one language (granted with different accents), we have almost identical cultures, but we do not share the same physical characteristics! We have blond Arabs, brown hair Arabs and black hair Arabs; blue eyed, black eyed, hazel eyed …. You see where I am going with this? Imagine then my surprise when I found out I was “White” under the US Census; an identity that does not align with me.

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

Humankind has evolved and merged into very complex social structures. Like it or not, the conventional definitions of family units and social groups have changed. There is much more to us than “race” and “ethnicity”. And despite the race/ethnicity option we select for ourselves, others will make their own perceptions about us!

So, I pose the big question: how do these two categories serve us today? Do the numbers generated from these questions benefit us? What information do these statistics give?

I know what you are thinking, diversity of course! We think we are doing it right by first creating restricted categories, forcing people to pick from the limited list, then claim we have diversity! But can we truly satisfy our diversity mission this way?

Allow me to demonstrate with a personal example. I come from a big family with many biological siblings. My thoughts on certain social topics differ drastically from some of my siblings. On the other hand, my partner and I think alike despite the fact we are of different genders, races and upbringing.

So, if we 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.

Diversity mirage, by nature of its title, is not sustainable as a strategy. Differentiating on age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation …. etc. will generate statistics that might seem favorable on the surface but give the illusion of diversity.

True diversity, on the other hand, refers to diversity of thought, experiences, skills and values. We want to get a spectrum of ideas to solve challenging problems. We want to encourage different trains of thought. We want this in our social and business groups; we want true diversity, not superficial diversity.

Suppose we forego the race and ethnicity categories altogether and never ask people to pick from a pre-defined list. Will it help us achieve true diversity, or will it take us back a few steps? Will it give people the freedom to better express themselves, or will it encourage stereotyping?

In this blog, I humbly share my personal opinion hoping it provides food for thought! I do not claim to have the right answers. Perhaps I missed the point of race and ethnicity questions. But I would like to imagine a world where we do not confine our identities using limited dropdown selections.

I look forward to hearing your views on this subject and help me with my dilemma!

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