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Race-Ethnicity Survey Questions: Definition, Approaches and Best Practices

Parvathi Vijayamohan

7 June 2022

4 min read

Race is a loaded topic at the best of times. So asking race-ethnicity survey questions, especially in 2022, can make even seasoned researchers double-check every word.

So how do you include race-ethnicity questions in a way that most people will feel comfortable answering? Here’s a quick guide on how to craft a smoother survey experience.

What is a race and ethnicity survey question?

Let’s start by defining race and ethnicity. Paraphrasing from this blog: race refers to physical traits, like hair type, eye color, and skin color.

On the other hand, ethnicity refers to cultural traits, like nationality, religion, language, and customs. So a person’s race is physical and unchangeable, while their ethnicity is cultural and changeable.

Compared to race, ethnicity is also a lot more complex. For example, an Indian-born woman can call herself Asian, but that does not describe her ethnicity. She could be of South Indian, Indo-American, British Indian, or any other ethnicity.

So to get a better picture, race-ethnicity survey questions are often paired together. They belong to the demographic family of questions designed to get information on a respondent’s background.

A recommended approach is the method laid down by the FDA: a two-question format for requesting race and ethnicity data, with the ethnicity question followed by the question about race. Here’s an example:

  • What would you describe yourself as? (followed by categories)
  • Which of the racial designations below best describe you? You can choose all that apply.

You can check out an example of a Race & Ethnicity survey template by SurveySparrow.

Ethnicity questions for surveys

Chat-based UI with carefully crafted questions for a higher response rate.

Race & Ethnicity Survey Template

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Where to use race-ethnicity survey questions

A reliable rule of thumb is to ask yourself:

1. “Is this relevant for me?”

2. “Why do I need this information?”

For example, suppose you’re a product manager for an online feedback software. You want to find out customer reactions to a recent software update. It doesn’t matter if the customer’s ethnicity is Puerto Rican or British Caucasian. If they hated it, they hated it.

But if you are the Head of Culture for that software company, this information might help you understand the current level of diversity and inclusion within the company and what needs to change.

Race and ethnicity are not dependent on each other. But for many people, race and ethnicity are central to their identity and can affect their opinion on a lot of topics, from their shared experiences to political views. So demographic research, social science studies, and academic research are some types of research that are ideal for race and ethnicity surveys.

For example, Pew Research Center’s report, Race in America 2019, found that for roughly three-quarters of black, Hispanic, and Asian adults, being black, Hispanic, or Asian was extremely important to how they think of themselves.

This data allows the researcher to compare responses across categories and understand the role of race and ethnicity in a respondent’s answer.

So, despite race’s sensitive nature, race-ethnicity survey questions can help lay the groundwork for more inclusive and respectful systems within an organization. But, of course, it depends on how you approach it.

Related: The 14 Best Survey Questions on Inclusion and Diversity

Best Way to Ask Race and Ethnicity in a Survey: Approaches

Aside from the FDA’s approach, there are other ways to ask race and ethnicity survey questions comfortably. We’ll talk about three of them here:

Approach 1: The “Getting to Know You” Approach

Start your survey with a conversational tone. Craft your questions around getting to know the respondent better. Here is a sample survey design:

  • What’s your name?
  • Nice to meet you, Parvathi! We would love to know the hidden meaning behind your name. 
  • Interesting! What’s your nationality?

And so on.

Approach 2: The “Fill in the Blank” Approach

Another approach is to leave a blank option – an open-ended question where participants can describe their identities in their own words.

With text questions in SurveySparrow Classic forms, you can enable more descriptive answers with voice transcription.

For eg., something like this:

Tell us about yourself.

or this:

Ethnicity survey question

You can be as diplomatic as you want with this. For example, if you were a beauty brand creating an inclusive range of concealer, instead of point-blank asking about race/ethnicity, you might ask, “How would you describe your skin color?”

However, asking indirectly like this runs the risk that you might not get the data you need. This takes us to…

Approach 3: The Combined Question Approach

You can also combine race and ethnicity survey questions into a single, one-page question. Here’s an example:

Question: What would you consider yourself as? (followed by a list of racial-ethnic categories).

  1. White (followed by categories)
  2. Asian (followed by categories)
  3. Black (followed by categories that apply: African American, Afro-Caribbean, Black British, etc. )
  4. Any other racial-ethnic group
  5. Mixed/multiple ethnic groups

Best Practices for Asking Race-Ethnicity Survey Questions: A Checklist

#1. Follow the rule of thumb given above.

Use the race-ethnicity survey question only if you plan to do something meaningful with the data.

#2. Tell users the ‘why’ and ‘how.’

For race-ethnicity survey questions, include a brief explanation about why the data is being collected, how it will be used, and how it will be protected.

#3. Stick with checkboxes for the answer options, and enable multi-select.

Avoid radio buttons as they will force respondents to choose just one option. That option might not accurately represent who they are and will create some resentment.

#4. Make your survey more inclusive with ‘Other.’

While ‘othering’ has a negative meaning, you can use this answer option in a survey to make it more inclusive. You can also change the answer wording into “Not included”/”Not listed.”

A multi-racial/multi-ethnic respondent might choose ‘Other’ if their race/ethnicity isn’t included. In that case, use display logic (if you’re using SurveySparrow) and follow up with a text question so that they can self-describe their ethnicity.

#5. Only use racial/ethnic categories that apply to your target audience.

A little bit of desk research on the dominant ethnic groups in your target location can help you identify the initial categories. Then, as you gather more data from your survey, you can update and refine these categories to be more inclusive.

#6. Make all race and ethnicity questions optional.

Since race and ethnicity are markers of identity, respondents should have the option to opt-out of answering these questions.

Wrapping Up

That’s all, folks! Thank you for taking the time to read this.

If you’re looking for additional reading on this topic, do check out this brilliant blog on survey design for race-ethnicity questions.

Parvathi Vijayamohan

Growth Marketer at SurveySparrow

Fledgling growth marketer. Cloud watcher. Aunty to a naughty beagle.

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