Best Practices for More Racially and Ethnically Inclusive Surveys

As thousands occupy the streets to protest police brutality in support of Black Lives Matter, institutions nationwide are taking this opportunity to rethink their approaches to diversity and racial inclusivity. Market research is no exception. For decades, demographic components of surveys have generally tread traditional lines, unconsciously reinforcing the racial status quo. Now is the time to model surveys from the ground-up to create a more inclusive, respectful experience for participants.

The Role of Race in America

In America, research shows that race plays a huge factor in a person’s identity – especially for Black Americans. Pew Research Center’s “Race in America 2019” report found that about two-thirds black adults say being Black is “extremely or very important to how they think about themselves.” In addition, the research showed that Black Americans are more likely to say that their race is central to their identity, compared to Hispanic, Asian, and white participants.

That same Pew report found that about three-quarters of Black and Asian people – and 58% of Hispanic people – say they have “experienced discrimination or have been treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity at least from time to time.”

On top of how central race is to identity in the US, it has also laid the foundations of systemic racism. Viral clips of mistreatment and abuse of Black people by the police and law enforcement capture the public’s attention, but racial discrimination has been present in the pillars of American society since the country’s inception. For example, one paper out of UC Berkeley determined that mortgage lenders charged higher interest rates to Black and Latinx people, amounting to $765M yearly.

Race or Ethnicity?

The US Census Bureau considers race and ethnicity to be two separate and distinct concepts, and defines race as “a person’s self-identification with one or more social groups”. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is classified as “whether a person is of Hispanic origin or not.”

In American surveys, it is advised to implement a “two-question” format, with the ethnicity question preceding the question about race. For example:

  • Question 1: Do you consider yourself Hispanic/Latino or not Hispanic/Latino?
  • Question 2: Which of the following five racial designations best describes you? More than one choice is acceptable.

It is important to note that these determinations are not considered universal. Both race and ethnicity, used in general discussion, are human constructs used to categorize and characterize seemingly distinct populations based on common hereditary traits, language, or culture. While the difference between race and ethnicity can be vague and hard to define, the Gendered Innovations project at Stanford University says, “In scientific analysis, it can be important to distinguish, however loosely, between race and ethnicity”.

Changing how to frame surveys and questionnaires

“Racial identity”, as explained by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, is split into two questions – an externally imposed “How do others perceive me?”, and an internally constructed “How do I identify myself?” Therefore, a strict race selection on a survey is outdated and doesn’t accurately capture the meaning of racial identity.

Multiple choice options
One suggestion posed by Purdue University researchers is to swap traditional radio buttons to multiple choice checkboxes when asking about race in order to accommodate biracial and multiracial identities. “Select all that apply” is a more inclusive term, and doesn’t force the participant to prioritize one racial identity over another. This not only is more accepting and reflective of the multiracial makeup of America, but also adds another dimension to demographic data analysis. As interracial marriages increase nationwide, so does the importance of collecting racially accurate data.

Self-described identities
Another proposal to change racial demographic data collection is to allow users to self-describe their identities when appropriate, a method recommended by the FDA. Some participants might not feel comfortable selecting from the distinct categories given, and giving the opportunity to write in a response can help researchers determine if their identity options need to be broadened. For the write-in option, avoid using the term “other”, as the concept of “othering” can lead to more marginalization. Instead, opt for just a blank line or “self description”.

Reorder lists
Finally, reordering the way in which racial identities are presented in a list can go a long way in normalizing diverse and multiracial demographics. Many surveys order their race by majority – i.e. the most populous race is at the top and the smallest minority at the bottom. This thoughtful Medium post asserts, “Challenge our assumptions that our users are American, white, male, cisgender, able-bodied, and hearing… If you challenge this assumption and set a distinct default or ask the user to select from a list that does not prioritize the majority option, the user is driven to think about the variety of other users that might be using your product.”

This list is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive, but it can be a good start. Normalizing racial diversity and attaining racial equality will take years of progress and restructuring, but there’s no better place to start than in research.

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