How race and ethnicity categories in job applications, forms, and the census ignore the reality of mixed identities
I was filling out a digital application for my dream job as a travel correspondent for a top newspaper when I found myself in an uncomfortable yet familiar situation. I reached the section regarding questions about race and ethnicity. There was the dreaded drop-down menu with predetermined categories—none of which fully represented my makeup. Usually, there’s only the option to make one selection. I couldn’t check all of the boxes that apply to me.
Race and ethnicity are not the same, and the categories’ options are often confusing for those of mixed backgrounds like myself. I’m not alone in this struggle—43% of interracial marriages in the States are between Latinxs and Whites. It’s estimated that one in five Americans will have a multiracial identity by 2050. We shouldn’t be limited to choosing a race or ethnicity, as many people need to select an ethnicity beyond their race category. Doing so is insulting and a gross form of erasure.
The United States Census Bureau has collected information on race and ethnicity since the first census in 1790. 6.2% of 2010 census respondents selected the Some Other Race (SOR) population, which was the third-largest race group. According to the Bureau, “This was primarily due to reporting by Hispanics, who make up the overwhelming majority of those classified as SOR.” Hispanics accounted for 18.5 million of the 19 million people who selected SOR. That’s millions of Americans who don’t feel accounted for with the limited categories.
The U.S. Department of Education uses five categories for data on race: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White. Two ethnicity categories are Hispanic Origin and Not of Hispanic Origin.
Not all Latinxs are Hispanic. Those terms are not interchangeable. Latinxs are people from Latin America or of Latin American ancestry, and Hispanics are native speakers of Spanish or of Spanish-speaking ancestry. For instance, people from Brazil or Belize are Latino but not Hispanic since those countries weren’t colonized by Spain, and the official language is not Spanish.
I’m both Hispanic and Latino as my grandfather was from Spain, and my grandmother was indigenous Uruguayan. I’m also White as my mother is of mixed European descent. By ethnicity standards, I’m Caucasoid, which is most commonly referred to as White. Yet in the States, the ethnicity term White by societal standards isn’t accurate for describing Latinxs who are minorities. Latinxs are not White in the way that Americans of European descent are White and we deserve to have that clarification.
This is where confusion sets in for people like me. My potential choices in my job application were Hispanic or Latino, Two or More Races (Not Hispanic or Latino), and White (Not Hispanic or Latino). I’m none of these.
“The race/ethnic categories makes the task of job seeking more stressful and perhaps, political. When a multiracial individual has to select a race/ethnicity option, they’re forced to choose one part of their racial or ethnic identity while denying another, which can negatively impact their self-esteem and self-worth. The applicant may be subject to more severe scrutiny and racial profiling by an employer as their application is reviewed,” says Karen McLean, Ph.D., LMSW Assistant Professor of Social Work at Western CT State University.
I need to be able to select Hispanic or Latino, and White, but I’ve never seen an option allowing this, such as Two or More Races (Hispanic or Latino) or White (Hispanic or Latino). My fellow Latinxs who are of Black, Asian, or Indigenous heritage also don’t have options that properly represent them on job applications, the census, or student forms. They also need to be able to select Two or More Races (Hispanic or Latino).
I can’t simply check White. I’m immensely proud of my roots, so I selected Hispanic or Latino. This isn’t an honest representation of my roots, culture, or family. I was forced to racially miscategorize myself. Forms like this imply shame in my inability to narrow myself down to a box to check.
What other options do I have with a name like mine? Studies have proven that white-sounding names have an inherent advantage in job applications. If I selected an option that stated Not Hispanic or Latino, it would immediately cause reason for concern. I’m proud of my heritage and my Spanish name. Sometimes there’s a choice to decline to self-identify, but then I fear a potential employer will make wrongful assumptions based on my name and stereotypes about Latinxs.
Luciano Joshua Gonzalez-Vega, co-chair of the Latinx Humanist Association, knows this feeling all-too-well. “I’m aware that judgments will be made about me on the basis of my name long before a company hears me for the first time, or speaks with me. As a multicultural person, someone who was raised in multiple societies, one of the biggest sources of anxiety for me during job applications is wondering how my name will affect judgments passed on my application. This is a mentally draining process that wears one’s sense of self down, and with each rejection or worse yet; no response at all, this feeling hits harder,” he says.
On many forms following the question about self-identity, there tends to be a specific call out for Hispanic or Latino applicants. I’ve never seen a secondary question about any other race or ethnicity. I was bewildered as to why the employer was specifically concerned about whether or not an applicant is Latino. With the current political climate in the States, I perceived this as an attack. I also had to clarify that English is my native language, and I’m fluent in English reading, writing, and speaking.
Many pressing questions polluted my mind. Why is it so easy to erase my bi-cultural existence? Why can’t I be recognized as both of my cultures? Why were they specifically concerned about whether or not an applicant is Latino, but not any other ethnicity? Was the publication trying to make sure they didn’t hire a Dreamer, someone without the proper paperwork to work in the States, or a non-native English speaker? Maybe they wanted to see if they could hire someone at a lower salary, as Latinas make $0.52 to every $1 a White man makes?
I decided to proceed with the application in hopes that the genuine intention was to hire a POC. There’s a shortage of Latinx voices in travel journalism. This experience made me wonder how many other jobs I’ve lost out on simply because I’m Latina. I had never realized before that these specific ethnicity questions about Latinxs may be used against me when applying for jobs. Out of the thousands of applications I’ve filled out over the years, I wonder how many simply didn’t consider me for a role because they made wrongful assumptions about my status and linguistic skills.
I appreciate that employers want to diversify their workforce. It’s impossible to determine if an employer will use the data to make decisions stemmed in racism which causes anxiety for POC. “Existing systems for processing job applications tend to operate under problematic pretenses. What’s better for both POC job-seekers is a thoughtful and considered analysis of their experience, job-history, and review of references, rather than automated systems that cannot apply context and consideration to individual applications,” says Gonzalez-Vega.
Other multicultural countries have banned all types of polling of ethnicity or race. France prohibits the distinction between citizens regarding race, ethnicity, or religious beliefs. A French friend of Roma descent recently told me that the country is considering banning the use of applicant names and photos and giving potential employers identification numbers so that they’ll be judged simply on merit—not race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality.