The Issue with Race and Ethnicity Classifications

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Chelsea Beck

For some people, checking off a race box isn't enough to feel represented.

By Sagun Shrestha, Clarksburg High School

With the United States being defined as a melting pot, having been a region encompassing a multitude of different cultures, races, and ethnicities, one issue remains in terms of classifying the people of this country.

The latest standard federal categories for race and ethnicity were last defined in 1997, more than two decades ago and have not been updated since. Created by the Office of Management and Budget, there are five major race groups, those being American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White. The problem is that there are people feeling unrepresented when forced to choose such broad categories of races.

“We’re a very diverse community and we all deserve to have our own ethnicities out there so we can be accurately represented so that Arab people like me don’t have to check off white because we can’t really check off black either,” said junior Duaa Emira.

After push for additional categories, a proposed MENA category, standing for Middle Eastern or North African, was created, though the U.S. Census Bureau announced that they are not adding the additional classification to the 2020 census.

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The MENA category would span the region of the Middle East and North Africa.

“I’m sad it’s not being included in the 2020 census but as long as it will be included someday, that’s all that really matters,” said Emira.

A major issue with such broad classifications is perception, especially for those who are unsure of which division they fall into. These people may feel judged for the decision they make, even though they had no choice but to pick some side, even if it didn’t feel entirely right.

“If given the choice, I would choose Persian or Middle Eastern, but according to race codes, I am classified as white. Ethnicity and race aren’t the same thing[s] and a lot of us more so identify more with our ethnicity more so than our race, but I don’t think I am viewed as white,” said English teacher Yaseman Bright. “I could put white down on a form, but when people look at me, they don’t think I’m white.”

Distinctions between races even date back and may have to do with someone’s history. Despite connections throughout the world, regions developed differently and thus forcing different timelines under one category doesn’t do each ethnicity justice.

“If you look at my Egyptian descent versus someone else’s European descent, it would be a very different history. We come from very different parts of the world, so it’s not really the same,” said Emira.

The issue transcends just the Middle East and is prominent for places like Asia, which has subregions within the continent.

“Asia is such a large continent. There are so many different ethnicities and Asians as a whole are very diverse and there could be more classifications within that,” said junior Samira Koraganie.

While some lower-level forms may break up Asia between East Asia and the Indian subcontinent, it still doesn’t account for many minority groups that fall under such a sweeping umbrella term.

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Asia, the largest continent, is divided into multiple subregions, including South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia.

“I think it should be labeled South Asian instead of just Indian subcontinent because there are parts of South Asia that are away from the Indian subcontinent like Pakistan or Afghanistan and Sri Lanka is an island located right under India. It’s like being clustered into being Indian,” said junior Lavanya Dias Amarawardena. “I think it is annoying because it does form stereotypes and assumptions that every brown person is Indian.” 

In forcing people to choose between such broad groupings, a person’s identity is compromised and individuality is lost. It isn’t fair to the people of the United States to feel unrepresented because of the inability to put more inclusive groups in terms of classifications.

“I do wish that [MENA] was included this year. The change is taking a really long time to happen, but to be honest, I’m thankful the change is happening at all so at least we won in some way,” said Emira.

This story was originally published on The Clarksburg Howl on January 21, 2020.