My office recently took the Myers-Briggs personality type inventory as part of professional development this summer. Turns out I’m an INTJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, and Judging), which is in no way surprising. As with many online surveys and tests, the first part of the MBTI involved answering a few biographical questions. One of them asked me to select the languages that I can speak fluently. English, check. Spanish, check… Spanish? I was very surprised to see both North American Spanish and Castillian Spanish listed, and even more surprised that I wasn’t exactly sure what either one meant. Mexico is the only Spanish-speaking country in “North America”, but people throw Central America in there too sometimes. While most people associate Castillian Spanish with Spain, growing up in Chile, my Spanish class was called “Castellano.” I was confused, and once again had to turn to “the Google” to answer a question about a key part of my identity.

This isn’t new to me. I’ve found myself in this situation – having to do research to learn how to accurately represent myself – many times. The one that I’m particularly vocal about (anyone in my office will confirm that I will take any opportunity I get to discuss this) is related to the way race and ethnicity data is collected in many official forms such as the Common Application and even the U.S. Census. Many forms make a distinction between “race” and “ethnicity” and use wording that’s similar to this:

      Are you Hispanic or Latino**?

      Regardless to your answer to the previous question, select one or more of the following:
          African American or Black
          American Indian or Alaska Native
          Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
          Two or more races

For many people of Hispanic or Latino descent, these questions are terribly confusing. No one is ever really taught how to answer them, and the distinction between race and ethnicity is unclear to many. Personally, I didn’t really understand the difference between these for a long time, and it would upset me that I was asked to identify myself as something other than Hispanic or Latina when I truly didn’t feel I belonged to any other groups.

I know some people choose not to respond the second question. This isn’t as easy for those of us that have a hard time not following directions (especially since the wording clearly states that I should be able to answer it “regardless of my answer to the previous question”). Others choose to base their answer solely on the color of their skin (a former colleague of mine always responds “Yes” to the first question and “African American or Black” to the second one despite having no Black or African heritage, but only because the color of her skin is darker). I often think about the impact this can have on biographical data reporting. My husband’s parents are Panamanian and a White American, and mine are both Nicaraguan. It’s interesting to me that we’d report the same (“Yes”, “White”), when we actually identify differently. Some people have suggested that because of his background he’s actually supposed to select both “White” and “Two or more races,” but given that Hispanic or Latino isn’t a race, I have a hard time believing them.

I often wonder how different institutions reconcile all of this (how they ask and report biographical information relating to race and ethnicity), but what I’m really curious about is how our students navigate these waters. Can we expect students to check the right boxes when even college-educated adults often struggle with these questions? What about when the answer to one of these questions links a student to a group they don’t feel they belong to or a group that doesn’t share their experiences or struggles?

** On a semi-related note, the difference between the terms Hispanic and Latino can also be confusing to people. Growing up I was pretty unclear as to whether I was Hispanic or Latina, and simply assumed these words were interchangeable. They aren’t, and comic artist Terry Blas does a great job explaining the difference in this comic. I truly enjoyed this, and I hope you will too.

By Maureen Ruiz-Sundstrom