Whether we realize it or not, we are all affected by the concept of race. It’s the reason why we’re asked to check a box on forms and surveys about our race and ethnicity, and it’s why we often see disparities in health outcomes among different racial groups. Racism is an interpersonal and structural phenomenon that disadvantages millions of people throughout our society, limiting their opportunity to live their best lives. It negatively affects their physical and mental health, and it impedes progress toward equality for all.
The word “race” has many definitions, but all refer to the idea of separating humans into biologically distinct groups based on physical characteristics. Because it’s possible for an individual to fit into more than one racial category, scientists created the concept of a racial essence—an invisible, internal component that determines behavioral traits and social status. In reality, 85% of human variation occurs within rather than between races, and most physical differences are the result of chance genetics or lifestyle choices.
In addition to a person’s physical characteristics, race is also determined by their socioeconomic status and other factors that influence their health. This includes education, income, occupation, and housing location. For example, Black communities experience higher rates of poverty and chronic diseases than White neighborhoods. This is due to long-standing policies and practices that systematically limit their opportunities, including a legacy of racial segregation and racial profiling. The COVID-19 pandemic brought these disparities into sharper focus. In order to address these inequalities, we must begin by understanding how racism impacts the body.
When it comes to data collection, the term racial identity is important to understand because it is used to define categories in the data sets that we use to measure health and other outcomes. For example, when collecting birth and death records, researchers assign a baby’s race based on reports from their mothers or other family members. In other data sets, such as public health studies and censuses, the researchers themselves determine a baby’s race. In these types of studies, it’s important to make sure that the researchers are using consistent definitions and interpreting the results in the same way.
For example, it’s common for researchers to define a child as being multiracial if they have parents with different racial identities. However, when describing people’s ancestry in surveys or questionnaires, it’s better to use the terms biracial and multiracial than mixed-race because they are less likely to carry negative connotations. Also, it’s important to avoid the word mestizo because it can have negative connotations.
Lastly, it’s best to ask about a person’s race and Hispanic origin separately because research has shown that asking the question of Hispanic origin first reduces nonresponses and reporting of race by U.S.-born Hispanics and increases reporting of race by Cubans and Mexican-Americans who may expect to be placed in the White category.