The American Identity Crisis — A Proposal For Radical Change

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Will Phipps & Lyndsey C. Fox

It was six years ago that National Geographic published an article challenging the binary choices presented by the Census. The article suggested that by 2043, the majority of the country wouldn’t fit squarely into any of the boxes regarding race the census offers¹.

Fast forward to this year’s census — we’re still making people choose from the same narrow options, simplistic to a fault. At the most linear, most basic level, it’s 2020 and we’re still using the word “sex” to ask about gender identity² and only providing binary options as answers. In 2020, shouldn’t the boxes better represent how Americans identify themselves, not how America wants to identify them?

As we evolve as a country, we need to challenge ourselves to create a braver way to self report by acknowledging and embracing the truth — that human identity is exponential in scope. By limiting our questions to a neat assortment of options based on longstanding societal norms, we significantly limit our ability to understand the true ethos of this country.

While the census is a governmental survey, it impacts everything America sees, hears and touches, because of how our industry uses the census as the most statistically significant benchmark. Right now, however, the data is inferior — viewing Americans through a superficial lens. We want the data to show us how America feels and what it needs, not just what it looks like. Who are you, what is important to you and the most telling sign — how do you take your (impossible) burger? We’re kidding of course, but the exploration of nuance in humanity is extremely important historical data.

So, maybe it’s time for us to pause and ask if these categories which are upheld as of the utmost import even matter? According to research conducted by Allen & Gerritsen³, 31% of Americans do not identify with any one group of people, only 28% cite gender as a primary identifier and a mere 17% use age as a primary way to define themselves? Yet, these are the boxes we’re continuing to offer. The surface quality of our census misses the context, nuance and humanity of the people it surveys, and we miss the opportunity to truly know the story of this country.

Our proposal? Implore the Census to create a new section that asks questions about what guides their lives — something that allows us to explore the complex nature of humanity — morality and culture, or maybe even faith or politics, in order to paint a better picture of what America actually looks, feels and sounds like, and most importantly, what America believes. We need to understand why people think the way they think and value what they value in order to tell the most accurate American story. A documentation of the moral genome.

And while changing the status quo is a challenge, we have an opportunity to use this once a decade survey to explore the complex — in order to paint a fuller, more honest picture of why people think the way they think and value what they value in order to capture a full elucidation of who America sees in the mirror.

In our move for change, we haven’t lost sight of the value of this data. The census is still an amazing tool. But, for an industry that lives and dies by the ability to assemble a focus group of 50 people who can help us predict how their 350 million fellow citizens will spend their money, it’s a once in a decade chance to see the entire picture with clarity, so it’s understandable why we as marketers are chomping at the bit to tweak the questions.

And if we do the work, could we change the 2030 census to allow the people of America to tell us who they truly are?

We have an opportunity now. As marketers, we can continue to build on the way we research. We need to push harder for custom studies that allow people to define themselves instead of asking them to choose from a preconceived set of identifiers. Maybe the syndicated research tools like MRI, Simmons and Forrester will catch up. Maybe they won’t. But if we take the lead now, we have a chance to evolve the ultimate American scorecard in ten years. If we do the work today, we have a chance to represent the country in a more responsible way, reflective of the expansive and eclectic set of people we are — a chance to let the country tell us who it is, not vice versa.

1 National Geographic, “The Changing Face of America” October 2013 ² ³ Allen & Gerritsen, On Fluidity, October 2019