Let’s stop segmenting people by race!

Photo by Kacey LópezIt is not unusual to use race as a demographic classification in the U.S. Marketing campaigns; government plans; segmentation studies; social programs- everyone pays attention to the race classification! For years, however, I have contended that race is not an appropriate demographic characteristic in the segmentation of population groups for marketing purposes. Maybe it was at one point in time; but our world today is demographically very different from what it was as recently as the beginning of the 20th century. Today there are no clear race divisions that correspond to typical group behaviors like there used to be many years ago.

To see my point here it may help us to think about what we mean by race. Race is usually defined by the physical features and characteristics of a group of people. Hundreds of years ago people that shared similar physical characteristics also shared the same social and ethnic makeup and tended to live in the same region of the world. People were not able to travel like they do today and there was hardly any interracial mixing. The colonization of the Americas started to change things a bit; but even in the United States, a country that was formed with a foundation of diversity, there was great social pressure for race segregation. For years people kept themselves divided by race. Things, however, started to get a bit confusing.

As centuries went by the Black African people that were brought in as slaves to Caribbean Islands became an integral part of the population of those islands. In some of these islands, like in Puerto Rico, the Blacks mixed with the Whites (mostly from Spain) and the native Indians resulting in the mixed race characteristics of the Puerto Rican people. Other Caribbean countries, like Jamaica, stayed mostly Black; yet the Blacks there have a completely different culture from Blacks in the United States. The same holds true for other races. Maya and Aztec Indians mixed with Spaniards in Mexico and Central America to form the characteristics we see in the people from those regions.

This is a good time to remember that Hispanic or Latino is not a race. This is a big area of confusion in the U.S. because Hispanic has been listed and often continues to be listed as a race classification in all kinds of government, business, and academic forms. Latinos with predominant Indian physical features in the U.S. do not know how to classify themselves on these forms and see Hispanic as the most obvious classification. In reality, the Hispanic classification was created partly to define this group of people that we were unable to classify otherwise. This is not all necessarily bad. Great historical accomplishments were achieved by Mexicans in Texas who set out to legally prove that they were not really white. Until the U.S. government began to recognize this distinction (by a ruling of the Supreme Court no less!), Mexicans who were accused of a crime in Texas were judged by a jury “of their peers” that did not include any Mexican. But I digress…

The fact remains that Hispanic or Latino is not really a race. When people in the Southwest say that someone looks Hispanic they are probably seeing native Indian features that are common in many Mexican immigrants. Likewise, when people in New York say that someone looks Puerto Rican they are recognizing the typical Puerto Rican race mix characteristics. Now, you would think that it would be appropriate for people from Guatemala who have a rather pure Maya heritage (many do) to say that they are of the Indian race. Not so. For one, saying that you are Indian in Latin America is still considered derogatory; a belief that comes from Spanish colonial times when Indians were at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. And more importantly, when any business, government, or academic form lists Indian as a race they mean American Indian; which surprisingly is not seen as inclusive of Aztecs and Mayas (let alone Caribbean or South American Indian natives).

In the United States, anyone with a mix that includes Black is considered Black. I never understood the reasoning behind this but the definition is very well documented. In other countries the definition is a bit different. In the Dominican Republic, for example, it is customary to consider a person White if there is White in their heritage or if the family is mostly of lighter skin. I have met many Dominicans with dark skin who are adamant about classifying themselves as White. In Puerto Rico there is a complete spectrum of skin tones between black and white; yet most Puerto Ricans will say they are White. Who is to judge what the race is when they are mixed races? This becomes worse as people continue to relocate and intermarry. It is becoming so confusing that the census now has a whole battery of questions regarding race mixes and Hispanic ethnic heritages in an effort to include all the options; but what we need to do is to simply give up on this whole race classification nonsense!

From a marketing perspective knowing a segment by their race is of little use. A Black person from Haiti has little in common with a Black person from Atlanta; let alone a Latino Black. To define African American as an American ethnic group (not a race) is valuable. Blacks who share the U.S. American heritage share the same cultural traits and exhibit similar behaviors. In defining African American as an ethnicity, however, I would not include Latino Blacks or newer Black immigrants from other countries. Marketing to Asians as a race is even more ludicrous. They do not even share the same culture or language. Marketing to Asians is only valuable when separated into the specific country segments. BUT… marketing to Hispanics as a whole works! Why? Because Hispanic is NOT a race.

While I will not argue that there are many differences among Latino segments, the fact remains that there are some very strong commonalities. We do (for the most part) share the same language, very similar values when it comes to family, a tendency to be religious or spiritual, a passion for food (even if our foods are different), a Latino wit or sense of humor that is often very different from that of Anglo Americans, a similar immigration experience, an emotional nature, and a unique way of connecting with one another that relies heavily on instincts, emotions, and non-verbal communication. Marketing to the commonalities exhibited by all Latinos does work!

My advice to marketing researchers is to forget about the race because it does not really matter; what we are trying to get at when we segment people by race is their ethnic background. Let’s segment by ethnicity, not by race. And let’s stop believing that we are different because of the color of our skin. The physical features are not what make people different; their attitudes and opinions, which stem from their culture and upbringing, do set them apart.

11 comments on “Let’s stop segmenting people by race!

  1. Hugo Lembert on said:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    This article is sure to enlighten many folks, especially our non-Hispanic/ Latino brothers and sisters – who just like them, Hispanic/ Latino folks derive from different racial, national and ethnic backgrounds – the common thread being cultural and historical ties. Race classification is out.

    In my opinion, it is the advance in technology, geographic proximity and the political, historical and sociological ties that maintains the Hispanic’s unique bicultural stance alive and may do so well into the future. But that is all that would differentiate an American Latino from the rest. These are variables one must take into consideration when communicating to this group.

  2. Hola, Ricardo-
    I couldn’t agree with you more- “race” is an artificial construct that completely ignores how all of us carry the genes of multiple ancestors of varying ethnicities. My brother recently had his DNA analyzed, and he discovered that we Garcias carry the genes not only of the Basques, but also of Western Russia- go figure! Suffice to say, that we Latinos are bonded by language and culture, and certain messages do resonate more in us than others. Familia is always a big one. Often more important than ethnicity, frankly, is socioeconomic status. A wealthy Mexicana from Mexico City shares more in common with a wealthy New Yorker than with a native Oaxacan woman from her own nation. You make some excellent points, but the main thing that we researchers bring to the table is “multiple lenses”- as a Latina from East Los Angeles, raised by Mexico-born parents, and with many family members still in Mexico, I personally feel very bilingual and bicultural. Furthermore, having taken many anthropology courses in my Ph.D. coursework at Stanford, I came to understand the importance of the lenses we each see the world through- truly, “cada cabeza es un mundo”.
    Rosi Garcia Fontana

  3. Auri on said:

    Good points! Using racial clasifications in many settings perpetuates divisions instead of classifying themselves as “one nation.” I have come across anthropological articles where they have concluded “humankind is not a race.” Some organizations and States have stopped using the definition of “race.” Instead, some would use “ethnic background.” It all depends on the objective of obtaining and using that information. I will give an illustration of a personal experience in one of my children’s school. At school they had me once completing the standard school forms for my child. It asked to pick a racial category. I didnt choose one and wrote on the form “human race,” and I turned it in. Weeks later, I went back to school and the staff recognized me. They pulled the form from their files and insisted I needed to pick one category.

    Additionally, there are some Hispanic (Spanish origin) or Latin (language based on the Latin) countries that are ethnically speaking very diverse. Some countries of diverse immigrants for centuries including Panama, Venezuela, Peru, or Brazil don’t use racial classifications for the most part. We don’t hear the use of definitions like African American, Native American, or Asian American. I also wonder why we don’t hear “European American.”

    We often wonder how good and valuable is the use of classifying ourselves like we could classify a German Shepperd from a Chihuahua. It seems to be a non-sense definition out of context that should not be used at all. It separates instead of uniting.

  4. Joe Ray on said:

    Well put dialogue. It’s about cultural experiences, background and ties, not race. I’ve never been a firm believer of the “melting pot” theory though. I think it’s more of a salad- the ingredients are there and distinct (and more interesting); you can see and taste the greens, tomatoes, chiles, croutons, etc. It’s not all blended into a nondescript homogenous bowl. It’s in that interesting “salad” that cultures coexist.

  5. Ricardo i have some issues with what you are saying it seems like you just want to make ethnicity the “new race”and in this new Jerusleum what will those of the english speaking population be??? what will we call there etnicity ??in which we put all people of different races from the whole Anglospere, just call them “anglo”and say you are the same???come on when i for example mark white as my race i am not just simply marking that i look like another person i am re-enforcing my european roots which transends ethnicity and i share with those who are also white and have european roots from any where else , just as if a mexicano wants to identify with his native roots as a aztec native american he shares that with a native american that brings us even closer together because from there people get brought together across racial lines as well for example white anglo and maybe a native american bolivian ..Also the term hispanic/latino should not even be used because it is very eurocentric but some like how those terms sound that is all… also to Joe Ray that is why people from latino americana should not be lumped together as well because people from there are a salad also trust me Uruguayans are very different from Hondurans just as people who have origins from Austrailia are very different from those of Belize we fail to realze that latino america is much like anglo america many immigrints come from europe…Please this all sounds like ethnocentrism…

  6. Dwayne Jackson on said:

    Hispanic/Latino is not considered a race, because if all Hispanics checked off “Hispanic” on the census it would throw off all of the data – Hispanics can be of any race. Argentines are Hispanic but the majority of them are racially White. How can you take a White Argentine and a Black Dominican and say they are the same race? It doesn’t make sense. The whole Hispanic concept is an ethnic term designed to lump all Spanish-speaking people into one group. If you are considered mestizo, you are of mixed race ( White and Indiginous) and should be saying you are mixed race on those forms.

    But honestly, at the end of the day, there is only ONE race, and that’s the Human race.

  7. I liked the thoughts and discourse this article examines and explores. You said you really did not understand why the United States indicates that ” anyone with a mix that includes Black is considered Black. I never understood the reasoning behind this but the definition is very well documented”.
    It is well documented and historically has been a reality, and it comes from the one-drop rule. It was actually a law in some areas of the United States in the early twentieth century.
    Not sure if by saying you didn’t understand it, means you don’t agree with it, then my information you perhaps already know.

  8. Benjamin Dicante on said:

    Matty…I would like to say that I have no idea what you are talking about. He is saying that it is bad. Ethnicity as a race? I don’t think so. Elimination of race…closer to what Ricardo here is talking about. It is true, however, what you are saying Ricardo. I’ve been dating, inter-racially, a person who is Mexican, but rather comes from a lineage involving Aztec, Spanish, and Italian. Boxes aren’t made for this type of person. Personally I’m made of a mix of Norwegian, German, Scottish, and French. Ask anyone, these people compared to each other do not have a lot in common. But conveniently I have a box for the white that is prevalent in my skin tone. But from where my ancestors hail is of no importance to marketers like Ricardo said since I’m simply American. I have American ideals, lifestyles, dreams, the works. But so do African Americans, Italian Americans, Mexican Americans(So sad when they can’t speak the Spanish language). People need to realize that race truly is pointless. This world would be much better off if everyone were the same shade of off-white grey. I will never like escargo like my ancestors or participate in Shinty, a Scottish sport. I was raised American, not white.

  9. You all have a point. In brief, I would like for the RACE term to be eliminated completly from all Government forms.
    Being a Guatemalan, I too was confused regarding the race questions when I came to U.S. Latin American IS like the US, a melting pot. We are white, black, asian, and yes, indians too. So, here in the US we (hispanics) have allowed to be excluded from the true race description. So, either eliminate ALL questions regarding race, or eliminate ETHNICITY. For marketing purposes, if an individual wants to buy a TV set, who cares about his/her race? I would care more if he’s got the money.
    I would like to start a movement to remove race/ethnicity questions from all Government forms. I would like you to join me.

  10. Ronald on said:

    Hello Ricardo! wow, quite honestly i have never read anything that i have agreed with so much! I personally came to the u.s. from guatemala when i was very young. Growing up in Georgia i developed an attitude that doesnt really correlate with the greater hispanic community today, as a matter of fact if i would to take my family out of the equation i would loose any connection that i have being hispanic whatsoever (considering that it is more of a cultural identification and not a race!). My job requires that i interact with many people and im always asked what i am on a daily bases. im well aware that racially i am of both native american (mayan) and more than likely spanish heritage, and so that’s what i respond because i assume that is what they are asking. Honestly im not the typical hispanic therefor i dont quickly respond by saying im guatemalan when im a u.s. citizen who only knows america as my true home because i dont remember anything from guatemala. saying im guatemalan would technically be irrelevent because when a white american is asked what they are they will reply by saying that they are white, not dutch or english or french ( unless you ask for specifics). Am i wrong to think that way? the hispanic community and members of my family would disagree with me but all my research suggest that the appropriate thing would be just to call myself american but most hispanics think that requires you to have blond hair and blue eyes and theyll be quick to judge you as a wannabe. my point is, not to sound to aggresive, but if you are a u.s.citizen you are american and race should not matter because we are all HUMAN and scientifically that is the ONLY race. My personal view on the issue is if you feel sooooo Proud to be Mexican or Columbian or whatever, would you be willing to move to those countries and think that you will have a lavish lifestyle like you have in America? That orgullo that hispanics are notorious for, will impede success in this country because you will think that you are like gringos or like whites or americanos, the same attitude that has led many african-americans or american blacks to not be successful in the u.s.. I bet the majority of people did not know this but many blacks are the way they are today because in the early 20th century many black activist told their great great grandparents not to be entirely successful because that would mean becoming one with white men and thier culture… my final point is be proud of your background but as a physical trait because remember we are ALL beautiful but dont be so proud of your historical background like where you come from or what happened to your ancestors or what they accomplished because that pride will blind you, the past doesnt matter the present and the future do. here in america i think that everyone no matter what color your skin is should embrace the sole attribute that binds us, our nationality. i know i got carried away from the latino/hispanic issue but i guess what im trying to say is that honestly, that shouldnt even be an issue right? i agree with the elimination for race/ethnicity questions from all government forms because its going to happen in the future anyway, like interacialy mixing that will be unevitable in such a beautifully diversified country like the u.s., which was founded by many for many. Peace in the name of the human race.

  11. The problem with separating “race” and “ethnicity” on government forms comes up when agencies use only ONE. I.E., the police department only use race (Black and White, mostly) on their arrest reports, so it’s basically impossible to find out if they are discriminating against Hispanics. “Eliminating” race/ethnicity on paper won’t get rid of the prejudice, but it can help sweep it under the rug.

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