Stacey Patton

Senior Enterprise Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Should You Check the ‘Race Box’?

Full 01292014 racebox

If you’ve applied for any kind of an academic job, you’ve seen it: the form that asks you to disclose your gender, race, and, if applicable, disability. And you’ve probably taken note of the assurances that your reply is optional, it’s confidential, and it will have no influence on the hiring process.

So maybe you’ve stared at that form and asked yourself: Should I check the race box?

That’s a particularly pressing question for candidates of color. Ask them how they feel about disclosing their race, and you’ll learn that there are two schools of thought on the matter. While some scholars are wary, others think it might be an asset.

I wanted to get a better read on their attitudes. So this past fall, when I attended the Institute on Teaching and Mentoring conference in Arlington, Virginia, I brought a short, anonymous survey with me. (The conference, which is hosted by the Southern Regional Education Board State Doctoral Scholars Program, gives scholars from underrepresented groups an opportunity to network with each other. There’s no other academic conference where you’ll find so many Ph.D.’s of color gathered under the same roof, so it’s the perfect laboratory.)

Here’s what I learned: Most candidates of color do end up filling out the affirmative-action forms in full, but they do so for a variety of different reasons. Of the 324 attendees who took the survey, 272 said that they check the race box.

Some of those applicants do so because they think revealing their race will give them a leg up. “In my field—electrical engineering—companies compete to find qualified black women,” said one respondent.

But others complete the form reluctantly. Many fear that leaving the box unchecked will diminish their chances of landing an interview—because employers may assume either that they don’t know how to follow directions or that they are trying to hide their race.

“Sometimes I do not want to check my race,” wrote one scholar, “but I follow through and still check ‘black.’ I do so because I want people to know that an intelligent, career-ready, black person is applying.”

But what about the 52 respondents who said they leave the box unchecked? Some believe race shouldn’t matter if institutions are genuinely committed to inclusion.

Irasema Ortega, an assistant professor of education at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, grew up in Venezuela. “When I came to the United States and started applying for jobs and saw these boxes, I thought, ‘What is this? What are they going to do with this information?’” she said. “I was suspicious and I thought to be asked to check off a box was demeaning.”

Others worry that racial data may be used to exclude them from candidate pools. One black Ph.D. from Purdue University, who is on the job market and asked not to be identified, explained that concern: “I used to check the box next to ‘black’ or ‘African American,’ but I never got interviews. Just out of spite, I’ve checked ‘white’ or left it blank, and I got interviews. When I showed up, I got surprised or disappointed looks. Those interviews didn’t last very long.”

What Are the Forms For?

Federal law prohibits discriminating against job seekers because of race. So why are applicants being asked to volunteer such information?

For compliance, mostly. Since 1965, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established to enforce laws against workplace discrimination, universities that receive federal funds have been required to collect and report records of job applicants by gender and race. This information is also used by campus HR departments to track applicant flow, and to monitor how successful they are at recruiting and hiring diverse applicants.

So there’s a reason these questions on gender and race typically appear on a separate form: That way, the application itself can go straight to the search committee, and the diversity information can go straight to HR.

M. Renee Baker, who has been the executive director of the office of faculty recruitment and retention at the Rochester Institute of Technology since 2002, outlines how that works at her institution: Information about race is immediately routed to a separate applicant-tracking database that only human-resources personnel can view.

So is there the potential for your racial status to make its way to a search committee? Maybe at some universities, Baker says, where the applicant’s information is sent straight to the departments doing the hiring.

But institutions that don’t build a pretty strong firewall are in the minority, says Allison M. Vaillancourt, vice president of human resources at the University of Arizona. (Like RIT, Arizona’s HR office has access to the demographic data, but it does not share identifying information with search committees or hiring authorities.)

“There might be places that are sharing candidates’ information with departments,” she says, “but that’s not considered best practices.”

Will Checking the Box Help You?

That’s not to say that search committees find the affirmative-action forms irrelevant. As colleges and universities move to hire more faculty members from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, the racial data sometimes plays a role.

“If a search committee is really serious about diversifying their department,” Baker explains, “they might work a little harder to ensure they are including people of color by calling and asking about the makeup of their candidate pool.” In that case, an HR officer will offer general numbers: four white candidates, one black candidate, and one who chose not to specify, say.

“We might provide aggregate data,” Vaillancourt says. “40 percent of Ph.D.’s in this discipline are women, so it is interesting that only 5 percent of your candidates are women. Why might that be?”

But many committees aren’t inclined to ask for that information, Baker says. “I have search committees that will tell you that they’d rather not know the racial background of candidates so they can have a fair and consistent process.”

On the flip side of the coin, Vaillancourt says, universities sometimes require search committees’ shortlists of finalists to be certified by HR. Let’s say a department has chosen three or four finalists, and they are all white men. The search committee might then be told that their list isn’t diverse enough, so they should take another pass.

It is unusual, Vaillancourt said, for a search committee to be told to add a certain candidate because of his or her ethnicity.

Or Will It Hurt?

Yet skepticism about the race box remains, and it’s not entirely unfounded, says Baker. “Folks are still not sure where they stand in this day of diversity and inclusion,” she says. “It’s still up to the faculty to determine who is the best qualified, and they tend to clone themselves.”

So when candidates ask her if they should disclose their race, she’s equivocal. “I tell them that it depends on the university and the people on the receiving end of those credentials. If it’s a school that’s really serious about diversifying their faculty then I tell them to check the box.”

One reason for her caution: There’s a big difference between creating a more diverse hiring pool and actually hiring more faculty of color. Increasing numbers of minority candidates are making it deeper into the application process, she says, but it’s not clear that those forays are translating to job offers.

Vaillancourt, on the other hand, says most candidates’ fears are misplaced. She encourages applicants to go ahead and fill out the form.

“It’s a little naive to think that a candidate can keep their race a secret until they arrive on campus,” she says. “People Google and talk to others before you come.”

So even if you choose not to identify your race on job applications, search committees are still going to draw conclusions from the information you do provide—a “black-sounding” name, say, or a dissertation that addresses racial themes. Your name and CV shouldn’t be dead giveaways, but a web search might eliminate any doubts.

In any case, Vaillancourt says, not checking the race box could actually hurt you.

She points to a hypothetical search in which all the minority applicants decline to provide their information. “Searches can be cancelled because the candidate pool is not diverse enough,” she says. “So people who are trying to protect themselves against discrimination maybe working against themselves.”

Administrators like Vaillancourt, who are committed to diversifying their faculty, admit to finding it frustrating when candidates try to scrub clues about their racial or ethnic background. Unconscious bias is a very real factor in searches, she says, but more colleges are having conversations about what bias looks like and how it works.

Ansley Abraham, director of the SREB’s doctoral scholars program, agrees. He told me at the SREB conference that he encourages job applicants to check the race box precisely because race still matters.

“We are not living in a race-neutral or post-racial world, despite what the media pundits say,” Abraham said. “We need some measures to give us data to track progress. I hope we get to a place where we no longer need these boxes, but it won’t happen in my lifetime.”

♦ ♦ ♦

The Race Box: an Informal Survey

How it worked: At the SREB conference, I surveyed more than 324 conference attendees, asking them to identify their sex, age, and academic status, and to disclose if they had been on the job market in the last 12 months. I then asked attendees if they check the race box on application forms and to explain why they do or don’t.

Why some applicants check the box:

“I tend to completely fill out applications only as a requirement so checking race/ethnicity is more of a habit although I frequently check other because there is never a multi-racial box.”

“I want the job to know exactly who they are dealing with. I have nothing to hide.

“I check the race/ethnicity box because I am proud to be who I am. I am an educated woman of color and I want people to know that.”

“My field is made up of predominantly white men. I am truly unique and therefore I mark my race.”

“I do check it off but hesitantly. I know that is for statistical purposes but I hope that I will be considered as an equal when I apply.”

Why some applicants don’t:

“I have never checked the box due to a lack of trust regardless of confidentiality statements.”

“I don’t check the box because it will probably have a negative influence on the hiring decision.”

“I do not check race/ethnicity because I hope my credentials speak for themselves, and that race/ethnicity is not the only primary factor under consideration for whether or not I will be hired.”

“When I finished my Ph.D. I had to fill out a survey that asked me to check white, black or Asian but there was no box for my ethnicity. So I had to check white. I felt awful finishing my Ph.D. and to check the wrong box to describe who I am.”

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  • Re: "Let’s say a department has chosen three or four finalists, and they are all white men. The search committee might then be told that their list isn’t diverse enough, so they should take another pass.": That's illegal. Many universities think that, because it is legal to give some consideration to race and ethnicity in student admissions, therefore it is lawful to do so in hiring and promoting. Not so -- the law is different, and it is not only unfair, unproductive, and divisive to hire with an eye on skin color and national origin, it's also illegal. More here:

    Roger Clegg
    Roger Clegg
  • Having made many great hires at this university in Corpus Christi, Texas, the EEO director used the data to always question my selections for the best candidates for the positions, to the point of demanding that I justify why academic credentials, work history and interview results were weighted in my decision. Yes, he had an agenda to shape the profile of my department regardless of quality of the person. He made race an issue; I made quality an issue. And, yes, my department was well balanced.

    Marshall Collins
    Marshall Collins
  • I would prefer to refuse to answer such questions on principle because I am an Australian of indefinite racial origin. However, you have to be careful what blank spaces default to.
    In Australia on academic forms you are supposed to answer if you are of Aboriginal (Indigenous is the latest euphemism) or Torres Strait Islander origin (YES/NO). If you refuse to answer the computer defaults it to NO. But that is not the answer I wish to give. I crossed both the last time they gave me one of those stupid forms.
    When I was a post-doc in the US on the race/ethnic forms I honestly and accurately described myself as Australian under "Other". In both cases they struck out my response and I became an Asian/Pacific Islander. As far as I know I have no asian or pacific islander descent at all. The fools that did it proably thought Australia was an island and so Pacific Islander was close enough. Conclusion: the racial/ethnic statistics of american universities must be severely corrupted because no-one ever came around to check me out.

    Raymond Ritchie
    Raymond Ritchie
  • Stacey! Great article as usual. You always seem to write about such relevant topics in our field. Your results here mean a lot. One institution said that it was "voluntary" to check my race. I did not check it. Why? I should be based on my qualifications. A week later, the institution sent me another email stating I did not complete the "voluntary" form. Okay! If the form is voluntary, why am I being pressed to complete it? I went ahead and did it although I personally believe they are used to practice legal racism, a week later, I received a rejection letter for the academic position. I think it was because I was Black. If not, why wasn't I rejected after not completing the form? I think in order for me to be considered for the position, this "voluntary" form had to be completed and once I completed, then I'm rejected. I just refuse to think race is used to hire or reject the Black client. Hire to meet a quota or reject because of their race and not qualifications. Again, thanks Stacy, great work here!

    Holly Sawyer, Ph.D. EL
    Holly Sawyer, Ph.D. EL
  • Many years ago in the beginning of my academic career I got bombarded by EEOC cards from every job that I applied too. There was always something about "voluntary data collection" and assurances that nothing on the form would have any impact on hiring.

    One day when I was frustrated by the lack of progress in my job search I put down that I was an African-American Female Disabled Vietnam-era Veteran (none of which is true). I didn't get that job either and it was probably immature of me to mess up their voluntary data but it felt good to vent.

    Thomas Groleau
    Thomas Groleau
  • Dear Thomas - it was not immature of you at all. You were making a reasoned and valid assessment of what is basically a stupid question. How many people do really know what their ancestry is? The documentation is unreliable in many different ways for example 5 to 10% of human populations (remarkably constant over cultures) have paternities different to what is printed on their birth certificates. The more corrupted the databases become the less likely they will be used to bang you over the head.

    Raymond Ritchie
    Raymond Ritchie
  • I once got the affirmative action question on a postage-paid postcard. This means that when you send it the postcard the college is required to pay the postage. So I cement-glued the postcard to a brick and put in the mail. I take great pride in my appropriate answer to a question that wants to sort you out and decide whether to hire you by putting you into a box rather than worrying about small things like qualifications,

    Jay H. Bernstein
    Jay H. Bernstein
  • On principle, I never complete the "voluntary" forms regarding race/ethnic background. While I am able to follow directions quite capably, I do not trust the "confidential" nature of the form. Second, I truly believe in the eloquent words of Dr. King: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Third, I teach politics and I have been in too many political science classrooms where students holding minority political views have felt excluded because their beliefs did not match what the professor was spouting. It seems to me while diversity of ethnicity is emphasized in my field, diversity of thought is marginalized.

    In the hard sciences, greater uniformity may be the ideal pathway, but in the social sciences and humanities, it is my desire we have faculty who have differences of opinion. Only by modeling to our students that people who disagree on key issues can still be collegial can we ever hope to transmit this value to the culture at large. And that skill cannot be measured on a form asking for my ethnic heritage.

    Dave Milbrandt
    Dave Milbrandt
  • I decline to self-identify "race" on application forms for three reasons:
    1. Race has been shown to be a construct. There are no biological race classifiers.
    2. The categories do not make sense in that they request selection of a continent-link or skin color. African, Asian, Hispanic, and then white? Huh? With migration and immigration rates in the US, and a long history of oppression, surely there are better questions to ask to improve fairness and access. (I am not discounting ethnic groupings or identities, but the ways in which applicants are to be classified.)
    3. To truly create a diverse pool of applicants, many other factors need to be considered. For example, capabilities, viewpoints, languages, experiences, and so on.

    The surveys could be useful for reminding hiring managers and others that access to opportunity has been restricted in the past (deliberately and unwittingly). Institutions that focus on developing a diverse workforce have made tremendous strides.

    Blindly selecting a pool would mean removing names, college names, year of graduation, languages spoken, veteran status, gender, address, citizenship, and more. How can a diverse workforce be created without looking at these factors?

    In reading recent tips for "how to land a job" or "get an interview," it seems that having inside connections still tops the list. Experts say that networking is the surest way to employment. If true, don't fret the box-checking.

    Mary Lou Horn
    Mary Lou Horn
  • Back in the seventies many of us wrote Human on the line for other, if everyone did this maybe the whole issue would go away. There is no good answer or reason to collect his data other than to identify differences that are all based on perception and not on any real differences between people of varying origins. Certainly we need to encourage diversity in hiring but we do this by making an unbiased selection of the best candidates. We also need to provide greater opportunity for talented students of poorer economic backgrounds with opportunities to get the education that they need to compete. Whatever the origin of the student the root cause of continuing discrimination is largely financial. My name has always identified me as being of Jewish descent, I am therefore not a member of a protected class under affirmative action or EEO rules, does that prevent discrimination? My father was rejected from US Medical schools in the 30s because they had their quota of Jews, he went on to get his MD from the Royal College of Edinburgh. My father never told me if they had a box to check for Jewish in those days, but they still knew how to discriminate with or without the box. I think for people of all origins such forms of discrimination still exist today. Checking the boxes just let's us find out what a bad job we are doing to try to fix the problem.

    Daniel Markowitz
    Daniel Markowitz
  • *One correspondent thought removing names on applications might help. In the sciences the important thing is your publications and they have your names on them. Applying for jobs in universities nearly always involves your name.
    *The correspondent who under "other" put in human. Did you know that admins will cross that out and re-classify you as I was twice in America? As an "Australian" I got reclassified as "Asian-Pacific Islander" without my approval.
    There is a sinister side. What happened to Dutch in 1943 who wrote "Jewish" on some form in Holland in 1907? We have no idea what form of government we will live under in 30 years time. In the 1950s to 1990s "Coloureds" struggled to get classified as "White" in South Africa. Now they are not black enough and those who can leave.

    Raymond Ritchie
    Raymond Ritchie
  • I'd really like to see a similar investigation of the other 'diversity boxes' particularly disability.

  • One concern that I have with racial and ethnic forms is that the categories seem to be politically driven rather than driven by valid anthropological, sociological, sociocultural, etc. research. In fact, the forms that are typically used in the US are actually an insult to many people. I always mark that I'm a non-Hispanic White person, but that is as far as they allow me to go - it seems as if they are steamrollering over my origins in the Ulster-Scots Appalachian "hillbilly" community of Kentucky. It's an insult, really, to be told that you are of the same background as old-blood WASP Puritans of Massachusetts, German-American farmers of the Dakotas, or the French-Canadian community of Maine. We all get along, generally, but we are NOT the same nor do we typically bring the same cultural thought patterns with us to work!  Whatever happened to REAL diversity, where everyone's background and contributions actually count? The reality seems to be that the form-masters don't actually want real diversity, they want "diversity numbers" that they can post on the wall and say that they are fulfilling arbitrary quota requirements.

    - A disgruntled Appalachian Celtic Hillbilly who just wants a little recognition of his community.

    Robert Columbia
    Robert Columbia
  • Let me just add some thought to my last post.

    Universities, as research-focused institutions, arguably should be working to implement scientifically rigorous models of diversity if they truly care about enhancing their own capabilities and accomplishments and working toward an institution with diversity that can be felt, rather than just seen on paper. The fact that they are not doing so indicates that "diversity" is really being treated as a "compliance" activity rather than an academic one.

    "Compliance" diversity is a thought stopper - e.g. "You are white, end of story, mark the form and turn it in." Real diversity is a thought provoker - e.g. "When you say you are white, what do you mean? What did your parents teach you about what being white meant? Have you read any articles on the development of the sociologial concept of "whiteness"? Do you know where your ancestors came from? What kind of lives did they lead? How does that make you feel? What cultural activities do you take part in that relate in some way to your ancestral background? Are there any cultural activities related to your ancestry that you refuse to take part in? Why? Other than English, do you speak any languages that were spoken by your ancestors? If not, are you interested in learning to speak them? Which one would you feel the most kinship toward? Have you ever worn "ethnic" attire in public? If you could write only 500 words to your children about preserving their ethnic heritage, what would you say?"

    Robert Columbia
    Robert Columbia