Welcome to Seattle Public Schools. What race are you?

The first day of school is uncertain enough without racializing kids. (Photo from Flickr by Eden, Janine and Jim)
(Photo from Flickr by Eden, Janine and Jim)

“Welcome to Seattle Public Schools!” it reads happily. I’m cheerfully advised to use a checklist following to help me enroll my child in kindergarten.

Okay, I think. No problem. My eyes scroll down the checklist: Admission Form, Certificate of Immunization Status, Special Education Form, and School Choice Form. Got it.

I start filling in the Admission Form. It doesn’t take long to get to page 3, “Student Ethnicity and Race”:

“INSTRUCTIONS: This form is to be filled out by the student’s parents or guardians, and both questions must be answered. Part A asks about the student’s ethnicity and Part B asks about the student’s race.”

I heave a huge inward sigh and put the paper aside for the day. Maybe I’ll come back to that one tomorrow, I reflect. But I don’t. I don’t come back to it for at least a week. Actually probably more like two weeks.

This is part of the process of enrolling your child in Seattle Public Schools (SPS). You have to state your child’s race and ethnicity. It’s not optional. And there is an entire one-page form dedicated to that declaration, which in my mind shows the clear significance of labeling a child’s so-called race and ethnicity to the district.

Screenshot from the Seattle Public Schools online enrollment form.
Screenshot from the Seattle Public Schools online enrollment form.

Given that my partner and I are both mixed-race identifying and have endured a lifetime of checking boxes that (hold your breath) might or might not fit, I find these types of forms exhausting. One, they never fit anyone and everyone just right. Two, they are generally and perpetually confusing. Three, they are almost always deeply racializing — they make us feel our bodies are “raced” whether we want to or not. And four, they are pretty suspect in their intentions.

Consider when I called SPS as a parent and asked an enrollment specialist who made the race/ethnicity categories, the answer was, “They’re federally made, federally required. We see funding from [the feds] and we have to follow their rules. It’s as simple as that.”

So there’s no local accountability for what the checkboxes say. Yet this information is then used both nationally and at the state level for school-based planning and program monitoring, for researchers and grant proposal writers, to monitor disproportionality, performance and “success,” and to guide funding allocation.

I suppose it’s some consolation that us parents/guardians get to choose and “check all that apply.” And I will admit the number of choices have grown substantially, to a degree I sometimes find admirable.

But one thing sure hasn’t changed. The choices we’re given are still dictated and prescribed by others. Sometimes that works out just fine. Sometimes it’s weird as all business. Sometimes it’s flat out aggravating.

“How on earth did anyone come up with these categories, and what purpose are they intended to serve?”

Seattle mom Nicole Gupte is Greek/Cypriot American and her husband is Indian American. Generally she looks for some version of Caucasian/white and Asian/South Asian on these types of forms for her kids. She was surprised and then upset by Seattle Public Schools race/ethnicity question when enrolling for the 2015/2016 school year.

“This is the first time I’ve seen a form that’s so specific and yet not specific enough,” she criticized, “My reaction at first was amused — as in, ‘Oh, Seattle!’ — and then kind of offended.”

Gupte pointed out Asian Indian and Pakistani are not usually listed as separate races.

“If we’re going to list separate countries, why not also list Bangladesh and Sri Lanka?” She also questioned “African American/Black” being designated as a single category given that our region represents large communities of Ethiopians, Eritreans, and Somalis.

“That’s a head scratcher isn’t it?” she asked, adding, “How on earth did anyone come up with these categories, and what purpose are these intended to serve?”

Indeed. There are many confounding issues at play here. In other examples, the only ethnicity your child can have is a Hispanic/Latino one or non-Hispanic/Latino one. Everything else is racial. That means categories that many of us use or understand as ethnic identities like Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Hmong, etc. are not allowed ethnicities.

Then look how choices are grouped. “African-American/Black” (as Gupte observes) but also “White” are weirdly devoid of subcategories. There’s nothing to check if you want to align with heritage of say Ethiopian, Eritrean, Somali or Scandinavian, Italian, Irish descent. Jury’s still out I guess on what you’re supposed to check if your family identifies as being or descending from the “Middle East” (quotes because that designation is a Western-centric term).

By contrast there are an impressive 9 choices for Pacific Islander-identifying folk, 16 choices for Asian-identifying folk and 31 choices for Native American or American Indian-identifying folk. I find these breakouts commendable and necessary. But there’s still question marks. Asia as a region, for instance, is a pretty big place representing something in the order of 48-50 countries and over half of the world’s population. China alone comprises 56 ethnicities. I don’t see this reflected and it certainly casts a category like “Other Asian” into dubious light.

Now I totally get that the SPS enrollment form is not meant as a geography lesson. I understand too the importance of collecting demographic information and how that process is infinitely complicated by whether or not, and how, to collect race data.

But at the end of the day we just can’t ignore some pretty substantial stuff: that next to no one knows what the process is for deciding these race/ethnicity checkboxes, or who is behind it

That there is an always-present discrepancy between intention versus impact when it comes to racial categories. People are still often forced to label themselves using criteria they don’t get to control under a racializing concept that makes no sense.

And that all of this can happen to you — just by enrolling your child in public school.

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4 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing Sharon H Chang!

    When my daughter started kindergarten I asked what happens if I do not complete the race question. I was told the teacher will complete the question for me.

    At that time, one check box was allowed. My daughter is being counted as Latina – now in 5th grade.

    My son will be counted as both Latino and White. Now we are allowed to check more than one box.

    Some reporting recalculates people’s race based on the social construct of hypodescent, so when we read the student’s test scores broken down by race, I still do not know how accurate that data is.

    Plus, wouldn’t it also be valuable to report test scores by zip code? Then we could add a library in zip codes that need it most.

  2. The division of humankind into “whites” and “people of color” is as absurd as the Third Reich’s classification of people into “Aryan” and “non-Aryan.”

    The government should NOT require anyone to classify themselves by “race” nor should any agent of government presume to classify anyone against his/her will.

  3. Great article and thanks for sharing. Your point about the problems of the Black/African American box in our region is so right on. When I was teaching a drop-in sewing/ESL class for immigrant Somali students they were also required to fill out enrollment forms with boxes like this. Fortunately there was a line to write-in race/ethnicity because my students didn’t identify as American Black after only having migrated to the U.S. in the past few years. Imagine trying to explain 1. the purpose of these questions and 2. the history of the Black/African American category to non-native English speakers who had perhaps only been in the U.S. for 2 or 3 years – having migrated first from Somalia, then to refugee camps in Kenya, then to the U.S. This makes me wonder, what is the experience of SPS immigrant families (who are non-native English speakers) in filling out these forms? Do the teachers just decide for them, if left blank? Why not have a write-in box so that families can decide for themselves?

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