We check it on job applications. We check it on medical forms. We check it when we apply for loans. And fill out a survey. And take a test.
We’re talking about the “race box,” and author Soo Bong Peer says it’s well past time to chuck it.
Peer, the daughter of a South Korean general who later became an ambassador to Mexico, the United Kingdom, and Japan, has lived in the United States for the past 45 years. As an immigrant and the mother of two biracial children, she’s experienced firsthand the dehumanizing effect of rampant racial categorization.
“We keep conditioning ourselves to define ourselves and others through race. Every time we are confronted with the race box, we are creating more distrust and divide. Every time we have to check the race box, it defines us. I’m going along fine and then suddenly I have to group myself into a little box. I think, ‘Oh, I’m Asian’,” Peer says.
“It’s so prevalently used, it creates our mental conditioning every day. We don’t even think about it anymore. It’s become second nature. We just reinforce the racial divisiveness. We are dividing people, and underneath we are not all that different.”
Peer, 64, an executive coach and the owner of Soo Peer Associates, a diversity consulting firm, brings a distinctive voice to the discussion of race in America. Her upcoming book (2018), A Foreigner Within: Connecting Beyond Labels and Political Correctness to Build an Authentic Path to Diversity, is a memoir and essay about the human dynamics that divide and unite us.
At its simplest level, the notion of race itself is a relatively modern concept. Genetic research backs up the theory that all modern humans stem from a single group of Homo sapiens who emigrated from Africa and spread throughout Eurasia over thousands of years.
American sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois spoke out against the idea of “white” and “black” as discrete groups more than 100 years ago. In his 1915 book The Negro, he wrote: “It is generally recognized today that no scientific definition of race is possible.”
Noted essayist and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that race is not only a social construct but an American-centered one. In a 2013 piece in The Atlantic, he asks: “Did the Japanese who invaded China consider the Chinese the same ‘race?’ ”
While the idea of race itself is suspect, Peer says the idea of forcing people to self-identify by race has had the opposite of its intended effect. The idea was to promote acceptance and diversity and enforce anti-discrimination laws.
But over time, Peer says, the race box has become a powerful subliminal catalyst that reinforces America’s way of thinking of and seeing people primarily based on race. That, in turn, leads to separation, stereotyping, and divisiveness.
While the U.S. Census Bureau keeps adding more racial categories and Americans keep checking more and more race boxes, there is evidence that the racial divide is only getting worse.
Americans who say they personally worry a great deal about race relations have sharply risen in recent years: 17 percent in 2014, 28 percent in 2015, 35 percent in 2016, and the highest in Gallup’s 17-year trend at 42 percent in 2017.
“There are so many things affecting this racial tension and divide, but if I had to pick one area to change, it would be the race box,” Peer says. “We have to change our psychology. To change our perception and stereotypes, we have to stop defining people by race.”
Those who might not be affected emotionally by having to self-identify by race might still be skeptical and suspicious of it, Peer says, wondering how the data is being used and if it will help them or hurt them. It’s no secret that many people manipulate and change their answers, as we see in job and college applications, to try to use their racial background to their best advantage.
Peer has no objection to the collection of race-based census data to collect critical information on our nation, people and economy. Among other things, the data are used by various agencies to monitor and enforce civil rights laws. But the census is only once every 10 years, she notes, not frequent enough to affect everyday thought conditioning.
But elsewhere, she argues, changing times call for new tactics. With today’s population shifts, less-than-desirable diversity enforcement track record and frighteningly high racial divides, it is time to have a serious discussion about where we can draw the line on the race box, quotas, and affirmative action.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the mixed-race population (two or more races) will become the fastest-growing demographic group in the U.S. over the next 46 years (2014–2060), at a 225 percent growth rate. We’re also well on the way to becoming a “minority-majority” nation. The Census Bureau predicts that will occur in 2044.
Peer asks where it will all end. Do these demographic changes mean that we just have to keep adding more racial categorization boxes? What boxes should we slide one-quarter or one-eighth mixes into?
“We are not examining where we were yesterday and where we are today and where we are going,” Peer says. “The path we have to walk is not an easy path, but it’s one we need to take. It will require a lot of change.”
“We can be proud of who we are — black, yellow, white, whatever — I don’t care. But it doesn’t mean we keep separating ourselves from others, and others from us.”