The Ethnicity Question

The Ethnicity Question

The Dreaded Ethnicity Box
The Dreaded Ethnicity Box

After years of being uninsured in the U.S. (and a few more years of having third-world equivalent healthcare in China), I finally received fully covered health benefits through my new job.  In fear of medical bills and non-preventative coverage, I went years without a standard check-up.  When I got my shiny new insurance card, I booked the first appointment I could to get tested for–well, everything.  After all, I was fully covered.

“It looks like your application is incomplete, Ms. Mary O’Connor,” the secretary smiled sweetly.  “You’ll need to answer a couple of quick questions before you can see the doctor.”

“No problem,” I smiled. “Is it allergies?  Past medical history?”

“No,” she whipped out a laminated file, “we need an ethnicity from you.  Could you please choose one ethnicity listed on this chart?”

The sheet had five options:

1. White

2. Black

3. Hispanic

4. Asian

5. Other

Oh, the lovely ethnicity box.

It seems like I just can’t escape from it.  Ever since elementary school I have always pondered at my list of options, wondering if I was more white, or more Asian, or something else entirely.  In the end, I could never choose between my races and I always went with ‘other,’ the oh-so-kind option they prepared for people that didn’t seem to fit into any one background.  Life was made easier when more recent forms started adding a sixth option, the “two or more races” box, but it seems like some establishments (aka, this hospital) hadn’t heard of it yet.

“I can only choose one?” I asked.  “I’m actually a mix.”

She looked at my black hair and brown eyes, “Are you Hispanic?  Just put hispanic.”

“But I’m not Hispanic.”

She shrugged.  I checked the ‘other’ box.

“We have one more,” she took out a three page file, “please choose a more specific ethnicity from these lists.”

Another one?  I hope this wasn’t triggered by my ‘other’ choice–but I guess this hospital was serious about their demographics.

A list of over 200 races were placed in my hand.  Italian, Native American, Norweigan–even Catalan was on there.  It was the most extensive list of ethnicity I had ever seen.

“I can only pick one?”

“Yes,” she repeated, annoyed.  “You can only choose one.”

At this point, I thought: Whatever, I’ll just be white–that’s what most people think I am anyway.  There has to be a white option.  I flipped through the list of names and scrolled down to the W’s, only to see Welsh starring at me in the face.

“There’s no white option,” I said out loud.

“Just put Hispanic” the admin mumbled again as she continued typing away at her computer.

But wait–was this for medical purposes?  Some races are more susceptible to certain diseases, such as Asians with diabetes.  Was this more than just a census?  Was this actually linked to my health?  Suddenly choosing white didn’t seem like such a good idea.  I wasn’t so sure about Irish, either.  Although they are prone to skin cancer.  But Asians get diabetes.  Hmmmm.  It was a tough decision.

The secretary began to tap her fingers in impatience.  I felt rushed.  My appointment time was quickly approaching.  I looked at my watch.  The list of races.  The diseases I could possibly have.

Who knew that picking a race could be so difficult?

Finally, I marked Vietnamese.

The secretary looked at my answer, my face, and then my super Irish name.  I’m sure she had an armada of questions, but instead she shrugged her shoulders and printed out my application:

Mary O’ Connor

Age: 29

Race: Vietnamese

“You marked Vietnamese for your race?” my boyfriend replied in shock later that evening.  “Why would you do that?”

“Because I can only choose one!  And I’m more worried about diabetes than skin cancer! I put sun screen on everyday!”

“What are you talking about?

“You work at that stupid hospital,” I pouted. “Don’t they ask the race question for disease purposes?”

“To be honest, I have no idea why we ask that–but it’s definitely not for medical reasons.”


“I guess that means you feel more Asian than White, huh?”

“No–I don’t really know.  But they only let me choose one.  And Vietnamese was easier to find.  Plus I’m more worried about diabetes.  Runs in the family.”

“I’m sure the doctor was shocked to see you, Ms. Mary O’ Connor from Vietnam,” he laughed.

Like I said before, being biracial aint easy.  A simple act as going to the doctor can make you remember just how confusing it is to determine your race, identity, and belonging when you don’t fit into a set category.

The good news?


No diabetes! 😀

Have you ever had a rough time at the hospital?  Any other moments of frustration from the ethnicity box, or any other demographic?

20 thoughts on “The Ethnicity Question

  1. I thought there were now boxes that said: “Check all that apply” and had entire lists of ethnicity. Damn, you’d think our multicultural country would get with the program!

    1. I know! What kind of American could only choose one!? Even my ‘white’ friends can calim 1/4th German, 1/18th Russian, 1/1000th Native American, etc.. It’s hard to just pick one!

      My boyfriend later corrected me and said ‘American’ was an option (I guess I missed that one)…. but what does that even mean?

  2. I”ve never heard of a race or ethnicity question being a requirement. I take my boss to the doctor every week. Almost twice a month he has to fill out forms. Ethnicity is not required.

    I’m often assumed Asian..full=blooded. I put white. It’s what I am to me and I don’t see many Asians who look like me although it seems the majority of the world believes I see Asian in the mirror. It’s perception but i have to be true to myself in identity, heritage/ethnicity, culture, and what I, not others, view in the mirror.

    I will pick more than one if able. I will skip the question if optional. I will sometimes pick just white. Other times, if I’m upset that it’s required and only one option can be checked, I will check something like black, since I’m not. It seems fairer to choose what I am not, than take one side over another.

    1. To be honest I was quite surprised about them asking me to fill out the ethnicity/race box (and I was so shocked that they only let me choose one! I think very few Americans can identify themselves as just one thing..).

      I’m kind of jealous you have confidence in who you believe you are and check ‘white’. Even years later, I still waiver on the question. I don’t feel white or Asian, I’m very half-half.

      Hahaha you check black, that’s so funny. I should do something like that. Sheesh man, it’s 2015, I thought by now people would have more sense and include the ‘two or more races’ box on everything. As our world becomes more international, the number of mixed children are only going to increase from here on out.

      1. Aren’t you close to your parents? That is probably why you waiver and it’s a good thing. I’m not close to mine.I identify white since I grew up in that environment. I mean yes, I’ve had international foods and been to festivals, and have traveled extensively but don’t many of various backgrounds do that?

        I mean I didn’t grow up with anything particularly unique in my household aside from my religion….that is the most “cultural” I am. My religion was part of my upbringing and formed partly my values and outlook on things for better or for worse. Many times, when one asks my heritage, I usually name my religion and state(I’m southern). It’s what I know.

        The other reason why I identify more white is that growing up, I never noticed people on TV or movies looking different from myself. I know many of non-white backgrounds will say there was no one on TV who looked like them. I had Danica McKellar, Meg and Jennifer Tilly, Victoria Principal, Shannen Doherty, Kate Jackson, Ali MacGraw, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ann Curry, Finola Hughes. The list goes on. Some like the Tillys and Ann Curry are mixed but mixed or not, I thought there were a good number of people who looked like me on TV. What about you? Did you think no one looked like you on TV or movies?

    2. I also admire your confidence to pick one race, and especially if it goes counter to assumptions people make. I usually pick ‘other’.

  3. At least you knew your ethnicity. For the longest time, I didn’t know mine. My mother was adopted and was given an English name. I had to do an expensive DNA test to realize she had no English heritage whatsoever.

    1. I also have a friend that has an adopted mother so she’s not really sure what she is either.

      Wow that’s very great of you to do the DNA test. Even though it doesn’t necessarily improve our lives, it’s good to know who we are or where we came from. I really want to do one of those ancestry reports.. I think it would be fascinating.

      What heritage are you, if you don’t mind me asking?

      1. Well, the results are very “recent’ but it’s something. I was born in Louisiana and I’ve always wondered if I am Cajun/French but I wasn’t sure. It’s true, French (and German) did show up in my DNA. 🙂 Eastern European also showed up (Poland, Hungary, Russia, Ukraine). Irish was also brought up which I wasn’t surprised but don’t feel connection to it – that side of the family is very toxic. I’ve always wanted to change my name because it is Irish and I will damn that it represents me. One day I hope to change it.

        I was most surprised that “Scandinavian” showed up. Ahahahaha….riiight. I know I don’t take over that side of the DNA. 😀 My heritage so far is pretty boring but that is what I expected, anyway. Mayo with white bread boring. My brother has to do the test to know the other half, sadly. Haha. I have a feeling he will reveal more interesting DNA but it’s something. I know we have Native American but it’s not recent enough, probably.

        Oh, it tells you your health as well (higher risk of such and such)….maybe it does improve our lives. haha. 🙂

  4. Mary… I had a similar situation yesterday. I was sent a link to participate in a survey for a student doing a research about expats in China. One if the questions was race. I always thought I was white, caucasian or whatever you want to call it. One of the options was White, another was Spanish/Hispanic/Latino. I didn’t know Spanish was a race O_o And I had always thought I am physically more similar to a French, Italian or Greek than to a Mexican.

    Catalan or Italian a race? Are we confusing race with nationality? If Catalan is a race then I am mixed race as my mom is Catalan haha.

    1. Oh Marta this is a great one! I think if you ever came to the United States you would be shocked. Most Americans have a hard time distinguishing Spain and Mexico, and they mostly think that people in Spain are Hispanic.

      Man all of these demographic questions are just… awful. I get how they’re trying to make an accurate census, but geez.

      Ooo you’re half-Catalan, that is SO COOL!!! I really want to visit that area of Spain! What region of Spain are you from again, btw?

      1. I always wondered about this. Doesn’t Hispanic mean having roots/imperial ties from Spain? But are the Spanish Hispanic? It is confusing.

        1. Something like that. From
          “Hispanic is specific for Spanish-speaking countries, not all of Latin America. Hispanic does not include Brazil, Haiti, or many other nations that are important to Latin American history, Latinx does. On an individual level, there may be other reasons.”
          I thought this was a good explanation.

          *Latinx – Latina/Latino

          It does get very confusing, yes.

    1. Haha, thanks Jocelyn! In fact, I was overall healthy and very happy with the result.

      But anyway, yeah, the ‘only one’ factor was very narrow-minded. In multicultural America, that’s just crazy.

  5. Ugh, so ridiculous that she just kept telling you to put Hispanic. When I was doing the Obamacare application, the race question had all the usual suspects. . .and then they listed every Asian ethnicity ever. Why do people keep confusing ethnicity and race? Race as a concept is messed up enough as it is.

    Sometimes, I have problems with the “where were you born” question, when it’s required yet the only options are states.

    1. Ah, I remember that on the Obamacare application. I remember back in the day they only listed “Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Other Asian.” I was always “Other” and then, more specifically, “other Asian” (damn you ‘other!’). I was elated when Vietnamese popped up on there in recent years.

      I know, America is so not international–seems like every form only lists the states without option for other countries. I tried to do turbo tax online for my years working in China (it’s also ridiculous that Americans are THE ONLY NATIONALITY that has to file taxes when earning incoming abroad… but whatever), and when I tried to list the address of where I worked or earned my income, they only listed states. In the end I had to go old school and file my papers by hand because no tax program online would recognize those that worked abroad. I heard they updated the software recently, but still, it was ridiculous. America needs to get with the program. The world is more global than ever now.

      1. The UK forms are also weird: for Asians they have ‘Indian’, ‘Chinese’ and ‘Other Asian’, as if Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Pakistani, Bangladeshi etc all fit together in one category called ‘Other Asian’. And they didn’t even have ‘Other’ when I was growing up. To be fair, there are now a multitude of boxes for mixed race, including ‘mixed white and Asian’. For ‘white’ the British forms also distinguish between white English, white Irish, white Eastern European etc.

        I think they do it for ‘diversity statistics’ for reports and stuff, at least in the UK. These kind of boundaries are always a bit subjective and sometimes seem a bit nonsensical (although there are reasonable arguments for and against using race on ID and official documents).

        In Malaysia and Singapore your race is stated on your ID – probably shocking from an Anglo-Saxon and European point of view, but Singapore lets you put the races of each parent or ‘Eurasian’ which might actually make life easier for biracial kids.

  6. That’s just ridiculous. If it’s not for medical purposes, I’d almost be inclined not to fill the box in. It’s usually optional, anyway!

    1. I know, but she said I couldn’t go to the doctor unless I filled it out! Craziness. If it was for medical purposes she should have let me know, too.

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