What Would Happen If We Just Quit Asking?

AM Quit Asking

“Remember! Take your time! It’s not a race!”

I called out to my son as he headed off to school to take standardized tests last week. We had heard horror stories from other parents about how their kids were filled with anxiety over being assessed, curling up into crying balls on the floor. To prevent this problem, we didn’t talk about the exams at all, save for this one piece of advice.

Later that afternoon, Jake came bounding in, filled with energy.

“How was your test today, buddy?” I asked.

“Good,” he chirped.

I prodded, looking for more detail. “Just good?”

“Yeah. I’m white.”


“The test says I’m white.”

“What do you mean?” I was confused, wondering if this was a new category on his color-coded behavior chart. Or maybe they had already received their test results and he was in the “white” range.

“Someone filled out the top part of the test for us. Ben was black. Arjun got Asian. I got white.”

He “got” white. Like they were handing out popsicles or something.

“But you’re not white.” I corrected. “You’re Asian-American.”

“Like Arjun?”

“No, he’s from India. Your mom is half Japanese.”

He quizzed me. “India and Japan are both Asia?”

“Yeah… I think?” Before he could test more of my geography knowledge, I added “You’re technically Japanese American.”

“But how can I be Japanese, Dad? You’re not Japanese.“ He paused for emphasis. “You’re like… pink!”

I wondered whether or not I should be offended. He continued his assessment, turning toward Audrey and saying,

“I bet I would be a lot darker if mom had married another Asian.”

To which my seven-year-old daughter replied,

“True. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

I wasn’t sure if I should laugh because it’s funny, or cry because it’s true. Here I was, a white dad, trying to explain the construct of race to my Asian-American kids, and they couldn’t care less about the subject. And all because of a pre-filled bubble on a standardized test. The whole episode had me wondering:

Why do we even ask the race question any more?

From an accountability standpoint, I understand why we need to know a person’s race. The Civil Rights Act was a beautiful piece of legislation. It was one of those rare times in our nation’s history when capitalism took a back seat to doing the right thing. Imagine if you owned a lunch counter in Mississippi in 1962.   Serving “colored people” might hurt your business. So the Federal government thankfully stepped in and made it illegal to discriminate based on sex, race, color, religion, or national origin. And today, capturing demographic information helps us see if particular groups of people are being denied jobs, loans, or opportunities based on the color of their skin.

It’s an accountability thing. So we count.

But not very well.

Consider a recent leadership meeting my wife attended at our church. The team was reviewing the demographics of our congregation to see if we mirrored the community where we live.   Gabby pointed to the document and noted,

“This says there are no Asians in our church.”

“That’s right,” someone offered.

She raised her hand, “Ummm… we should have at least one. Right?”

*insert awkward silence*

To be fair, my wife is like an optical illusion.  She can look Asian, Hispanic, or Caucasian depending on whether we’re eating at Pei Wei, El Chico, or Applebees.

Gabby filled the void by asking, “How do we determine this information? Do we just look at people and take a guess?”

That’s when someone chimed in and said what everyone was thinking,

“We definitely shouldn’t be guessing.”

Again, laugh because it’s funny, and cry because it’s true. All of us adults are trying hard to get it right, but still making mistakes.  There is a genuine intent to honor the experiences of others, and race plays a part.  At the same time, I’m finding that my own kids seem to be oblivious to their own race, and we’ve told them dozens of times. It’s like they have racial amenesia or something. Or maybe they’re allergic to labels.

If so, they’re not the only ones.

In the most recent US Census, “Some Other Race” was the third largest racial category chosen. And it’s not for lack of options. The form allows people to select between White, Black, African American, Negro, Hispanic, Latino, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Spanish, American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Guamanian, Samoan, Chamoro, Filipino, Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander.

Yet “Some Other Race” was number three.

This has the Census Bureau confounded. They are trying mightily to fix this problem to assure people accurately categorize themselves. They’re even working with the US Office of Management and Budget to adjust the “official” race categories. I know it’s silly to imagine, but yes, there are people whose job it is to determine what races are “official” in America. And it’s rather arbitrary, like trying to determine how many squares a roll of toilet paper should have, or what name to give the latest nail polish color at the Clinique counter. Looking at a brief history of how these decisions were made in the past, I was simultaneously amused, confused, and outraged.

The funny thing is, we’ve been doing all of this counting, since 1790, and every decade the number of boxes grows ever larger, with no end in sight. In fact, Census Bureau is testing a question for the 2020 form that adds a space beneath each racial and ethnic category so each person can write in his or her own description.

Yes. A fill-in-the-blank census.

As crazy as it sounds, it is probably the most accurate measure we could have. While it’s human nature to want to put people into boxes to make sense of the world, humans themselves resist being placed into boxes. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it’s because our egos don’t like being pigeon-holed. Or maybe it’s because the Constitution says that we’re all created equal, and labeling groups of people only encourages stereotyping and generalizations.

Or maybe it’s because God never intended it to be that way.

I know I am a naïve idealist given the current state of race relations in our country, but I believe there’s some truth in the words of Roger Rosenblatt, who, at the turn of the millennium wrote this in his Letter To The Year 2100,

“U.S. immigration officials recently predicted that by 2050 (50 years ago for you), nearly half the country’s population will be nonwhite. There are more interracial marriages every year. I like to picture you all as a nice, rich shade of beige.”

It sounds nice, doesn’t it? Rosenblatt is on to something here. Maybe the solution to our problems isn’t ever more boxes to check on a census form, church register, or standardized test. Maybe what we’re truly after is something completely different. Think about it…

If we no longer asked the question, would division no longer matter?

It’s worth considering. And worth an investment of prayer and hope. That Rosenblatt’s words would somehow come true. All of us checking a single box. The human race. Created equal and treated as such. Seven billion unique expressions of the image of God.

Loving each other into oneness.

* Enjoy this post?  For more, just preorder Scott’s book about his family’s Year Without A Purchase on Barnes & Noble or Amazon launching August 4th from WJK Press. And, to see more posts like this, submit your email at the upper right to receive new blogs hot n fresh to your inbox.  Or, Like us on Facebook.  Cheers!


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16 responses to “What Would Happen If We Just Quit Asking?

  1. Tiz

    I love this. And you. And your family.

  2. Charlie Palmgren

    The Apostle Paul took it beyond race and nationality to gender, neither male nor female. Such distinctions divide. Maybe we could settle for human race, earthlings. That should catch most of us.

    Creatively, Charlie 1142 Dora Whitley Road Franklin, TN 37064 615-591-7613 (W) charliepalmgren@gmail.com

    On Thu, May 21, 2015 at 1:15 PM, The Accidental Missionary wrote:

    > theaccidentalmissionary posted: ” “Remember! Take your time! It’s not > a race!” I called out to my son as he headed off to school to take > standardized tests last week. We had heard horror stories from other > parents about how their kids were filled with anxiety over being assessed, > c”

  3. lizbeatty

    Our oldest son was adopted from Bulgaria and is proud to be of Roma (sometimes called “Gypsy”) descent. That one definitely is not listed as an option on any application. When he was little, he modeled as the “Hispanic” child for a local Christian educational materials company, and was on the cover of Mexican VBS curriculum wearing a sombrero and shaking maracas. Definitely the Lou Diamond Philips of his generation! As he has gotten older, he has been mistaken as Indian, Arab, Latino, Greek, etc. and been the target of many of the slurs that are often associated with these various groups. All this to say, that I agree with you that we have to stop having this need to label people based on perceived racial and ethnic backgrounds and the stereotypes that go with them. What would happen if for one month journalists covering the news only brought the facts of a story without identifying the race of those involved? Would our perceptions change?

  4. Check out http://www.newsweek.com/there-no-such-thing-race-283123 and the comments. When I worked the 2010 census I was delighted by the number of peoples who found the “race” question offensive and many who replied “human” which I carefully denoted under Other: specify. Additionally I find this not only rude and inappropriate but also dangerous when we look over history when a persons “race” or “perceived race” has been used as a bludgeon to justify personal gain. And I have one question for the church counsel, once you identify a statistical lack in a certain “race” what will you do? How about just learning about many cultures and using that information to be welcoming, respectful and loving to all?

  5. Reblogged this on Brain Drippings and commented:
    An interesting thought…

  6. Yvette Grant

    At this point in America most people are other, of mixed race, wether they know or acknowledge it. One day, sooner than we realize we will be so mixed we will just be human.

  7. Michelle

    The reason the question is on the tests is because schools are judged based on how each ” membership group” scores (these include races, poverty levels and special needs students).. They have to show progress in certain minority areas. As teachers, we see kids as all the same and teach them that way, giving extra help and attention to all and value their personalities. Why do the higher ups keep insisting we do otherwise?

  8. interesting topic, super like.

  9. KDWilson

    I found it interesting that the UK asks your race but also asks your cultural identity. So technically I am American but with a Mexican cultural identity. I think you shouldn’t claim to be Mexican-American (or other mix) unless your grandparents/parents were born there. And at the same time it joins all of the Americans under the same umbrella on an equal level but identifies their cultural background.

    • Jann

      Better by miles. Although I think even that is increasingly challenging and scientifically problematic. There is no blood test for ethnicity and every DNA test I’ve read about shows diverse regional history for all of us.

  10. itsjusttoni

    I love this post! I have wrestled with this dilemma myself since my children are half Mexican (My husband’s parents were from Mexico) and half “white”. My grandchildren: some are 1/4 Mexican, 1/4 white, half black,(maybe, since their Dad was adopted); some are 1/4 Mexican, 1/2 Venezuelan, 1/4 white; some are 3/4 white, 1/4 Mexican, and on it goes. Which box(es) do they (and their children) check? I think there might be a need for a box labelled “Rainbow”…

  11. Chris Beal

    Hi Scott! My husband Mike & I met you & Gabby recently at Sandy Cove. I love this article mainly because I can personally relate to it. I’m half-Mexican. (never met my biological father in person, but ended up being his emergency contact not long before he passed away-crazy story!) Anytime I’ve had to “check the box”, I’ve wondered what the correct answer is. I’ve felt like I was perpetuating some sort of fraud by checking either box when I’m not fully 100% Caucasian or Hispanic. Ironically, most people think I’m Italian.

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