Have you ever had to fill in a form where one of the questions asked about your race? I am sure that you have, because in the U.S., every time we apply to a university or for a job this question pops up – but why is the answer to this question so vital? Doesn’t it promote racism instead of fighting it? These are the types of questions that arose in my head when I was applying to Columbia. By doing research in this area, I found out that various reasons are used to justify the presence of the race question on applications – yet people who answer this question still feel that by letting employers and admission officers know their race, we give them freedom in the ways of using the information. While these ways can influence the person who is asked this question, they can also affect a society and a community, something bigger than a life of a human being.
Edward Said, a Palestinian-American scholar, once claimed in his speech on “Identity, Authority and Freedom” that universities and schools are like “crucibles for shaping national identity,” meaning that universities are institutions that have a responsibility to protect and cultivate every individual’s right to define himself or herself. However, even when applying to a school or university, we are bound to one category of people by the question about our race. In this way, the race question is morally constricting and prevents prospective and future students from enjoying academic freedom.
There is another consequence that deeply affects multiracial people and those who must choose “Other” when answering the race question. In most of the forms, you are not allowed to pick two boxes and two races or choose a special category indicating that you consider yourself multiracial. This subconsciously forces a person to make the important decision of choosing which race is more appropriate or favorable in the community. This has been proven in studies carried out by Nikki Khanna, a professor of race and ethnic relations, and social psychology. Meanwhile, those who pick the category “Other” feel that their race is less meaningful in this society, or that they won’t be affected to the same extent as those who have their race as one of the options.
The race question can be justified by policy makers for reasons relating to civil rights, legislative redistricting, equal employment opportunities, assessments of racial disparities in relation to public health, etc. Legislators and educators alike depend on statistical data when crafting new policies, often with the best intentions in mind. The way that the race question is posed and the different answer options that are offered to allow people to identify themselves make the statistical data more reliable. By obtaining the specific information regarding race elicited by this question, institutions gain a better understanding of larger populations and can make policies to best address large-scale issues. With this in mind, one might think that the question on this form should exist.
A professor and philosopher at Columbia University, Akeel Bilgrami once said that racism is the deepest issue in humans, which is why we are not able to eliminate it easily from people’s minds. The race question is not worth the hurt feelings of individuals. Possible consequences of the race question in each particular area and community should be taken into consideration when the decision is made of whether to pose the race question or not.