Stacey Patton

Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism at Morgan State University

Should You Check the ‘Race Box’?

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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.”

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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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