Putting "Others" in a Box

New Haven, Connecticut, USA

"Even if you're the whitest writer on the earth, you are writing about race, you just don't know it,"
- Junot Diaz

September 28, 2010

New Haven, Connecticut, USA

"Even if you're the whitest writer on the earth, you are writing about race, you just don't know it,"
- Junot Diaz

New students on campus bring new biographical data. This month I’m wading through piles of student data and new standards on reporting race and ethnicity. Race is not an easy subject on most college campuses, or in most places in the U.S. New classics like Beverly Tatum’s Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteriaand numerous news articles on minority retention and graduation rates describe a complex environment in American education where many students are discovering their racial identities and confronting difference, often for the first time in their lives.

As an undergraduate and in my graduate work, I learned to think critically about issues of race and privilege, and have become increasingly sensitive to the nuances of multiple forms of difference. I’m aware that the color of my skin brings me privilege, and conversations about racism have brought my sister, who is adopted from India, and I closer. I like having friends and colleagues who are passionate about diversity and are not afraid to discuss it.

While my academic and personal background is firmly rooted in a multi-faceted and socially constructed view of “otherness” in all its forms, when I turn to my professional life, I’m faced with a much less nuanced reality.

Are You Hispanic? Yes/No

Check one or more:

  • Asian
  • Black/African-American
  • Native American/Alaskan Native
  • Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander
  • White

These are the new race and ethnicity categories for reporting to the federal government, which schools are required to report on for the first-time this fall. Many schools have been re-surveying their students, asking students through their online portals or student information systems to confirm and/or update their racial categories. As with all communication from the administration, I’m sure there is a percentage of students who just ignore what seems a minor request.

So when the administrators (like me) turn to reporting at this time of year, we’re faced with apples and oranges, and some empty check boxes. If a student responded last year that they were Latino, does that mean they are “Hispanic” this year? It’s not that I disagree with the particular labels; rather, the new ones do not translate to the data already collected. International students are often relegated to a “foreign national” category, or worse, “nonresident alien”. Given the opportunity, will students describe themselves as more than just one race? Will this cause the number of minority students to go up or down?

I dislike the feeling that I’m putting students into boxes. I know they are so much more than a category (or more than one category), that they are the collection of experiences and challenges and triumphs that brought them to college. Being able to check more than one box shows a certain level of acceptance of the concept “multi-racial”. While this is progress, it is still a reflection of where we are today. And there is so far to go.

Heather Alderfer is a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus


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