July 21, 2010

Racial and Ethnic Categories

new sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you ever thought about how your definition of your race and ethnicity differs from the definitions the government and science uses?

The government defines race as white, African American (or Black), American Indian or Alaska Native, and Asian while ethnicity is simply Hispanic or not. Many options are available for what type of Asian, Pacific Islander, or Other race. (See the relevant questions below imagefrom Census 2000.)

The Census Bureau defines race as follows:

The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country, and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically or genetically. People may choose to report more than one race to indicate their racial mixture, such as “American Indian and White.” People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be of any race. In addition, it is recognized that the categories of the race item include both racial and national origin or socio-cultural groups. You may choose more than one race category.

Scientific definitions of race are best summed up by the American Anthropological Association's (AAA) statement on race. The AAA points out the difficulties in gaining any clear definition of race due to the lack of clarity as to what we are attempting to measure. In short, scientifically, there is no physical or geographic sense of what race is, although it does have cultural distinctions and the definitions vary in different times and places. 

The surveys I’ve done with my students suggest that most of them think about themselves racially and ethnically in terms of their cultural group identities. If they are not in a group considered white, they have a clear sense of being part of an identifiable racial group (black, Asian, Latino, Native American Alaskan Native, or Pacific Islander). No matter their racial identity, most mention important distinctions related to their ethnic groups, e.g., Chicana, Armenian, Mexican American, Chinese, Guatemalan, and Jamaican.

Is it important to notice the disparities between the governmental and scientific definitions? If science says race as a concept is not useful for describing humans, why does the government do it?

It all comes down to the economics and politics of categorizing people. Keeping track of people in different categories, whatever they may be, helps us know more about our society. If we have clearly identified disparities and problems in treating certain groups fairly, studies that track these populations can help us know if our social programs and policies are actually helping or not.

What does it mean that our governmental, scientific, and personal definitions of race and ethnicity vary so much? Are the categories that the government and science use useful at all since they may not match up with those that people use?

imageIf people fill out the census forms as accurately as possible, then the data the government collects can be used as our constitution demands: to allocate political representation and governmental programs appropriately to serve the people. If people aren’t aware what those categories mean or don’t how to accurately fill out the forms, what then is the use of that data?

Good data comes when people understand the concepts and share their definitions with the researchers.

It is fascinating that although science says race is a problematic concept to define, people hold dearly to their racial and ethnic categories of identity. Thomas Theorem comes to mind– if people define situations real, they become real in their consequences.

People grow up having to fill in those forms and thus claim a racial and/or ethnic identity. People participate in some cultural group that may have racial or ethnic distinctions or identities. Thus the concept of race becomes very real. This is especially true historically as society reifies these definitions and establishes policies that either disadvantage or elevate various groups depending on racial identity. Some of the many examples of such policies include Jim Crow laws passed in the South post-slavery, and the racial steering and covenants that were used in housing markets across the country until well into the 1960s.

As social scientists, we prefer clarity of definition rather than ambiguity. What, therefore, do these ambiguous racial definitions teach us about our society?


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Racial and Ethnic Categories:


My favorite example of this is the category of "irish traveller" in the Irish census. I had my students attempt to categorize themselves using it and none of them knew what such a person was. Fortunately one student, who had lived on Ireland, told the class "they rent hotel rooms and wreck them."

I responded, "Do we have a rash of wrecked hotel rooms and not even know it because we aren't counting Irish travellers in Canada?"

the gist of the lesson was that racial categories are tied to control. The students understood it easily at that point.

White people want to know what is the number of people of other races so that they can still control whom to give visas and citizenship. A proof of that is the Chinese and Indians who have to wait way longer to get their legal documents.For someone white from Europe it is much easier to come here.

The conclusion is that prejudice and racism still exists in America. As long as you are white and don't come from China or India you are part of the American team. If not - go and wait in line. That is why they have all these checkboxes in the form to control the races of people who come in from abroad.

Even though we’re told race isn’t important, it is in the U.S. Anytime we fill an application for jobs or research surveys or things of that nature, we are asked what race we consider ourselves. I don’t think it’s what we consider ourselves but more of what other people consider us to be. We find a racial issue in everything. From Tiger Woods, a black male, having an affair with white females while being married to a white female, to the 4 white offices killed in Lakewood by a black male.
The fact that we are still asked to identify ourselves according to race and ethnicity shows that there’s still discrimination and prejudice in our country. We talked about discrimination in my sociology class. White is still considered the dominate race. This also connects to the movie we watched in class about race. Students were asked to compare their DNA will others in class and they matched themselves according to race and ethnicity. The Africa American male thought we would have more DNA in common with the Africa American female in his class. But it turned out that he had more in common with a white student then Africa American.

I've always found the categories used to identify race as being a bit too broad.

An individual’s self-identification of race and ethnicity cannot simply be determined by their ancestral background. Most of who people are and what groups they consider themselves a part of will depend on who raised them, their personality, what personalities match theirs, and most of all who they feel most comfortable being around. Most people feel more comfortable being around people who have the same thoughts, beliefs, religious beliefs, personalities, interests, hobbies, goals, and habits. These are the factors that will ultimately decide what part of what ethnical group someone claims to be a part of whether or not they phenotypically are. The government uses classifications of race that are based on someone’s origin of geographical location and what ethnical background originated there. The truth is that in today’s world, the human society has become a homogenous mixture of racial and ethnical backgrounds due to inter-racial mating and is unfortunately a byproduct of technology. Technology has given humans the ability to be introduced to and communicate to parts of the world that they would otherwise be unable to communicate with. Today, technology has also given humans the ability to travel by use of boats, planes, and trains which has allowed them the opportunity to meet and mate with others that are not of their ethnical background. In the near future, this interbreeding will one day lead to one single human race that will be a direct result of consistent mixing of dissimilar ethnical backgrounds. In other words, race will hit a point where it cannot be physically distinguished and we will find ourselves in “racial equilibrium.” We are a world of mixed ethnical backgrounds. With this being said, how do we determine what side of our ethnical background to choose? For most people today, this question is nearly impossible to answer, so how can a census ask people to answer it accurately? The whole reasoning behind why the government does a U.S. Census is for the proper placement of government assisted programs that allow those programs to benefit the race that it is designed to benefit. The only way to do this efficiently is by getting more accurate information from factual numbers. This can be done by observing economic demographics that will more accurately determine who needs properly allocated political representation and governmental programs.

I would like to know how can I have a race and Ethnic done to see what Genetic I have. I want to know my background and where I'm from. So if you can tell me how I would like that very much.

Thank you,

The government is not concerned with the value individuals attribute to their racial and ethnic backgrounds. Hisorically race has been a way to divide and conquer groups.I think we can learn a lot about our society by examining the ambiguity of racial concepts.

This issue exists not only in America but also in other countries such as China too. There many communities whose languages are unrelated to other groups but have gotten classified into the ethnic group with the unrelated for political reasons. The consequences would be that the day when they recognize such mis-classification, they would no longer believe in the government of the country they are residing in.

The problem of race is not in America along. race should not be determined by one cultural or ethnic background. Scientifically there is no physical or geographic sense of what race is. Government define race according to categories. science say race is a concept, is not useful in describing human.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for everydaysociologyblog.com please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« Doing Research while Watching Sports Center | Main | From Cockpit to Concert Hall: Distributed Cognition »