marketing & design

Market Research Shouldn’t Include Race

by Brian James Rawson
January 22, 2023

Listen to the episode above. Read the transcript below.

Episode Transcript

Welcome to the Owl Street Studio podcast, where we talk about how marketing and design affect the unexpected areas of our lives.

In our last episode, we discussed the big-picture of demographics. And today, we’re zooming-in from the big picture to one of the fine details by discussing one of the standard data points within demographics. Today, we’re talking about race and demographics.

Our Approach to Demographics

Before we jump into the full discussion, we need to recap our approach to demographics. First, we believe that most demographic research is devoid of empathy, that most of the social surveys and reports dehumanize people. We believe that because so much of the research leaves out important social context and cultural nuance just to be able to fit people into a checklist. We believe no one can be encapsulated by a simple list of numbers and Yes/No questions.

Second, we do believe however that demographics are a useful tool, as long as they’re used correctly. And we believe the correct way to use demographics is with empathy. Our approach to demographics is to use them as a tool to expand our empathetic imagination and to help us better understand what it’s like to move through the world as a different person than ourselves.

Why We Do and Don’t Talk About Race in Demographics

So, if the purpose of demographics is to see what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, then we feel demographics must talk about race…because race affects every single person here in America, and it affects every single aspect of your life. There is no way we can understand what it’s like to move through the world as another person without talking about race. Race affects everything from where people live to where they work to who they know.

So on the one hand, we strongly believe that we have to talk about race in demographics. But, on the other hand, we strongly believe that the term and concept of “race” is extremely outdated, harmful, and ineffective. So, yes, we do talk about race when we conduct market research, but we don’t use that term. Instead, we use the terms and concepts of ethnicity, heritage, sub-culture, identity, and presentation.  

What Does Race Even Mean?

For those terms to make any sense, we need to quickly define the concept of race. The word and idea of race has a long history and leaves a lasting legacy that we must deal with here in America. But, without diving into that long history, the simplest way to define the concept of race is this. Race groups people by their outside characteristics. In other words, race judges “a book by its cover.”

Another way you can think about race and its connection to the other terms, is that race is on one side of a spectrum. Race is on the most unsubtle and blunt side of the spectrum. Grouping people from the outside tells you nothing about what’s going on the inside. Again, our goal is to use demographics to expand our empathy, so to that end, we want to know as much as we can about a person’s inner life. And looking at the cover doesn’t do that at all.

What Does Ethnicity Even Mean?

So, if race is at the farthest end of the dense/blunt spectrum, ethnicity is a few notches over. Like race, the word and idea of ethnicity has a long and complicated history in our culture, which we do not have time to unpack. So, the simplest way to define ethnicity is this. Where race groups people by their appearance, ethnicity groups them by their location. For example, race would say this person is black. Ethnicity would say this person is Nigerian. Ethnicity adds nuance and subtlety because it starts to account for what we really want to know. Ethnicity starts to show us the inner life of a person by helping us understand the culture and social norms and worldviews that they live in.

Since we can’t literally see the inner life of a person, understanding that person’s culture is one of the next best things. All of us live within a culture and inherit social norms, beliefs, manners, etc without even realizing it. A simple example is this. Beliefs about timeliness and what is punctual and what is not vary widely from one culture to another. For instance, The American Upper East Coast culture, like New York, values brevity and punctuality. There’s a reason it’s called a “New York Minute.” But, The American Upper Midwest culture, like Wisconsin, values politeness and punctuality. In Wisconsin, it’s rude to leave too soon or to talk too fast. So, by learning where a person lives and where they come from helps us understand some of the social norms and world beliefs that they hold. In other words, knowing where you’re from in the outside world helps reveal more of your inner world.

What Does Heritage Even Mean?

Going along our un-subtle to subtle spectrum, the next notch towards the subtle side is heritage. Where race groups people by appearance and ethnicity groups them by location, heritage groups them specifically by cultural communities. Often, location and cultural communities go hand-in-hand. Many locations are small enough that they only hold a single cultural community in that area. However, there are many places (like America) where you can live in one location and belong to a number of different cultural communities.

The Difference Between a Cultural Community and a Sub-Culture

But, before we go on, we need to explain what we mean by cultural communities. For us, cultural communities are a group of people that share A) social norms and beliefs, B) common interests, and C) have (or are striving for) a political voice/influence. The reason we make this distinction is because (at least here in America) there is a fine line between a sub-culture and a cultural community.

To help see the difference between a sub-culture and a cultural community, let’s compare the Cosplay community and the LGBTQ community. First, The Cosplay community is a sub-culture instead of a cultural community. People within the Cosplay community have shared social norms and beliefs, and they have common interests. However, they don’t have political influence. In other words, Cosplayers aren’t creating a political party or advocating for specific pro-Cosplay laws and policies and/or for the repeal of anti-Cosplay laws and policies. And it’s this lack of political voice that places Cosplayers into a sub-culture instead of a cultural community.

Compare that to the LGBTQ community. People within the LGBTQ community (itself a coalition of more specific, individual cultural communities) also share social norms and beliefs and have common interests. However what sets them apart as a cultural community is that they do have political influence. They are fighting for pro-LGBTQ laws and policies, and they are fighting to repeal anti-LGBTQ laws and policies. However, in the not so recent past, The LGBTQ community did not have political influence. It took the tremendous efforts and activism from community leaders to organize to the point of gaining political attention, and through continued stalwart efforts by community leaders, now the LGBTQ community is recognized on our nation's political platforms (though the fight for equality is far from over).

The Connection Between a Cultural Community and a Sub-Culture

And staying with the LGBTQ community, we can see how heritage and location (ethnicity) often overlap. Of course, there are LGBTQ communities across our entire country, but in certain places these communities connect to a specific location. For instance, the city of San Francisco holds a well-known connection with the LGBTQ community, and the Chicago area of Boystown likewise has a strong connection to the LGBTQ community.

And, last but not least, a person may belong to both a culture community and a sub-culture. For instance, a person can be part of the LGBTQ community and the Cosplay community.

What Does Identity and Presentation Even Mean?

Since that was a lot of explanation, let's do a quick recap to tie everything together so far. First, race is outside. Then, ethnicity is location. Heritage is cultural community, and sub-culture is non-political cultural community. Or said another way: race says this person is White. Ethnicity says this person is American/from the state of Illinois/city of Chicago. Heritage says this person is a member of the LGBTQ community, and sub-culture says this person is a member of the Cosplay community.

Now, heritage and sub-culture moves us a long way down the subtle side of our spectrum. But, heritage, cultural community, and sub-culture still leave out a lot of context and nuance. So, let’s keep moving down the line to reach identity and presentation.

Identity and Presentation from Gender Studies

The concepts of identity and presentation come from gender studies. In gender studies, identity is your personal, private connection to the gender spectrum. For instance, you may identify as a woman, as a trans woman, as non-binary, etc. Where identity is private, presentation is public. Presentation is the collection of social gender markers you chose to display at a given time. Presentation is public because gender presentation is nearly entirely made up of social markers, norms, and beliefs. Thus, presentation is fluid and varies from culture to culture. To help see this, think of clothes. In our American culture, we have social norms that dictate how a “man” should dress and how a “woman” should dress. And we have layers of these norms. For instance, we have norms for how a “man” should dress and another layer for how a “gay man” should dress and another layer of how a “Jock gay man” should dress.

Additionally, a person’s identity and presentation may or may not be the same. For example, a person may identify as a woman, but they may present as a man. Or they may identify as a woman, but they may present as a masculine woman or a femme male or in any other number of combinations and variations. All that to say, where race is on the far blunt and un-subtle side, with identity and presentation, we are now on the deeply complicated and nuanced side.

Identity and Presentation Applied to Race and Culture

We borrow this model from gender studies because, in the same way gender presentation is based on social norms, we believe that race is entirely a social construct and thus it’s also made up from social norms. And in the same way someone may identify as one place on the gender spectrum and yet present differently than their identity, we also believe a person may identify with a certain race/ethnicity/heritage and yet present as a different race/ethnicity/heritage. In other words, including identity and presentation helps incorporate the experience many people go through of having multiple ethnicities and/or heritages; of code switching; and of enduring colorism pressures, biases, and bigotry.

By including identity and presentation, we acknowledge how just like a person can arrange social markers to create a certain gender presentation a person can also arrange social markers to create a certain racial presentation. However, because of the legacy of race and racism, each person has limits on which social markers they can arrange and how far they can arrange them. For instance, a person with a white skin tone will never be able to physically look like a person with a deep black skin tone and vice versa. However, since race is based on social markers, a person can change their clothes, their speech, their social norms, and their body language and mannerisms to fit in with a culture they may or may not have been born into. This is what happens when people code switch and when people pass.

On the other side, just because a person physically looks like they are a member of a certain cultural community doesn’t mean that they are. A person may physically look like a member of that group, but if that person doesn’t know (or doesn’t follow) the group’s social norms they will be shunned and kept out of that group in explicit and implicit ways.

In this way, including identity and presentation helps also incorporate class into the discussion of culture and race. For instance, identity and presentation helps reveal the above scenario, a scenario that is the lived experience of many people with white skin tone that live in poverty. In that situation, the person may look White, and they may receive some benefits from the legacy of anti-Black systemic racism, but they are not accepted into the dominant White culture because class and the difference between wealth and poverty creates vastly different social norms and expectations. From body language to clothes to speech, someone may look white and not be White. Likewise, someone may look Black but not have a connection to Black cultural communities.  

What Race and Empathy Means to Us

And if your head’s spinning and you’re starting to get a little lost, don’t worry. It’s ok. Take a second. Take a breath. But, know that we’re not going to make things simple just to make it easier for you. Because if we did, we’d be lying. Because, in real life, nothing is that simple. In real life, things are very, very complicated, especially when it comes to everything connected to race. But again, our goal with demographics is to expand our empathy and to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. And we can’t do that without talking about race. And we can’t really know what it’s like to move through the world as another person without looking at all of the layers, complexities, and nuances that connect to race.

For instance, the lived experiences are vastly different between someone who code switches multiple times a day to someone who is immediately discriminated against because of their appearance. Likewise, the lived experiences are vastly different between someone who is born into the dominant cultural community (Affluent and White) and someone who looks like they belong in the dominant culture but don’t (disabled, poor, and white). And if we don’t move from the blunt use of race to the subtleties of ethnicity, heritage, identity, and presentation; we will never understand what it’s really like to be that person on the other side of the survey. In other words, if we don’t update and modify our terms and concepts to expand empathy, what’s the point of the research? So again, we believe market research and demographics should not include race, and at the same time we believe that they should talk about race, but we believe they should talk about it with the updated and more nuanced concepts of ethnicity, heritage, identity and presentation.

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