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Defining Identity with a Bubble

How AU admissions and the Common App categorize our demographics

By Allie Day | 5/4/17 9:50pm | Updated 5/4/17 9:52pm
Kimberly Cataudella / American Word Magazine

Michaela Garcia, a senior at American University, sat at the dinner table four years ago and applied to college. She looked out the window of her south Florida home and imagined going to school in Washington, D.C. Garcia filled out the Common Application, which allowed her to apply to over 600 schools at once. This was convenient, but she couldn’t help thinking about how the “demographics” section of the application made her feel. 

“I am always confused with what to mark down as my race,” Garcia said. “I have been able to use ‘other,’ but that also makes me feel like people [who] are mixed don’t really matter. We are the ‘other.’”

For many students, identifying their race or ethnicity can become an identity crisis when they have to do it multiple-choice style. The “demographic” section on college applications can be a huge problem. Remember when you applied to college? You had to scroll through and select a category that summarized your entire racial identity. It’s nearly impossible to categorize such a complex construct. 

The Common Application, AU Admissions and the U.S. Census Bureau all struggle with the appropriate way to ask for identity. In a 2013 report, the Census Bureau said that identity is “a complex mix of one’s family and social environment, historical or socio-political constructs, personal experience, context, and many other unmeasurable factors.” So, institutions are trying to calculate something that is technically “unmeasurable.”

But what if the choices on this application don’t match our identities?

AU uses the Common Application, a standardized application that gives students the opportunity to apply to multiple schools at once. While this may be convenient for students, it means that AU can’t control how they ask students about racial identity. 

AU Admissions actually sends out its own identity survey as a supplement to the Common App, but representatives from the Common App said they believe its measures are adequate. 

Aba Blankson, Senior Director of Marketing and Communications for the Common Application, explained  why and how they ask students for racial identity. In 2007, new federal regulations required institutions like the Common App to allow individuals to select more than one racial category. This means you can technically select a combination of these categories according to how you identify. Also, the Common Application stopped using the words “race” and “ethnicity,” Blankson said. Instead, they started asking students to “indicate how [they] identify.” But why are the semantics important?

“I question the point of reference when vone does identify as ‘black,’ or ‘white’ or ‘asian,’” Alex Taylor, a sophomore at AU, said. “Is that in reference to skin color or culture? Or maybe [it’s] in reference to ancestral descent, which then leads me to assume they’re talking about one’s origin or place of birth. But if that’s the case, then there are many people forced to choose something that is not specific to their true self.” Basically, the wording of identity-related questions can be especially confusing for the people responding. 

The Census Bureau has used words such as “race” and “origin” to ask citizens about their identities and racial categories. However, according to focus groups conducted by the Census, many Americans confuse these two terms. People don’t understand what they mean or how they are different from each other. Because of this, questions about race and origin can be misleading and insufficient, which is why the Common App changed its wording. The institution wanted to be more inclusive and guarantee that respondents understood what was being asked. 

The Common App now allows students to describe their identities however they choose, Blankson said. First, the Common App lets students select more than one racial category. Second, students can also describe and explore their racial identity in the essay section of the application if they wish to go more in depth. Blankson said that every year, the Application includes at least one question about identity so students can use this as a place to talk more about race. And finally, students can skip the “demographics” question altogether if they so choose. 

How does American University evaluate a complex construct like identity? AU prides itself on being diverse and inclusive, which is why the “demographics” section is so important. The university even has a page on its website dedicated to diversity. 

Jeremy Lowe, Associate Director of Admissions at AU’s office of enrollment, talked about AU’s role in uncovering student identities. The Freshmen Census, an identity-focused survey tailored specifically to AU applicants, is the university’s way to learn more about its students. Lowe said the survey allows AU to follow-up with accepted students and gives students a place where they can be more open and specific about racial identity. 

But, asking for racial identity goes beyond this. Garcia and Taylor both touched on the significance of self-identifying. We all want to express ourselves, we want recognition for our true identities for our true identities and we want representation. We also want to be accepted for who we truly are and celebrate this identity. 

"Sometimes it's uncomfortable to check a box in a 'one-size-fits-all' manner because it doesn't leave room to expand on one's actual descent," said Taylor. "I wish I could explain that I am both Finnish and Jamaican because I'm so proud of that, but living in such a systematic and categorical society does not always leave room for personal expression."