The Race of Birth: Systemic Racism Again?

The other day I was reading and came across this:

Prior to 1989, the race on a newborn’s birth certificate was determined by the race of the parents. An infant with one White parent was assigned the race of the non-White parent. If neither parent was White, the child was assigned the race of the father. Since 1989, the race of the mother has been indicated as the child’s race on the birth certificate.[Note 1 below]

Of course being the mother of a multiracial Asian child, my curiosity was massively peaked. I didn’t remember identifying my son’s race/ethnicity after he was born. Did nurses mark it for us? What did they put considering both my husband and I are multiracial Asian too? I rushed to find my son’s birth certificate. No race listed. End of story? Of course not.

A birth certificate is a vital record documenting the birth of a child. In the U.S., State laws require birth certificates to be completed for all births, and Federal law mandates national collection and publication of births and other vital statistics data.The data is managed by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), part of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What I pulled from my files was a Short Form Birth Certificate, an unofficial document containing very little information. The short form does not list race. It merely certifies that an actual official birth certificate exists somewhere else. A Long Form or Certified Birth Certificate is the official document; a duplicate of the hospital birth record that is prepared when a child is born. The long form certificate does list race.

The manner in which birth race is recorded has changed over time. The most recent 2003 revision included the important update of allowing multiple-race selection. As far as I can tell a “multiracial” option has not yet been added (as it was to the 2010 Census).

And here’s where it gets complicated.

First, although the NCHS has expanded its race/ethnicity codes extensively and allows multiple-box-checking, doing so has created a statistical dilemma. How does the system compile answers when some people check 1 box and others check 2, 3, or more? I poured over many online documents (including those posted on the NCHS website) and found myself drowning in confusion. I am certainly open to being corrected on this point if someone else can figure what in the world the NCHS is talking about – but it appears that complex algorithims are used to bridge multiple-race responses into one single response, a single race response. What??

Second, despite collecting race information on both parents, birth data is still reported, in most cases, by the race of the mother.

Third, states have been slow to adopt the newest certificate form. As of 2007, 26 jurisdictions had not yet implemented it.

The last explains many online birth certificate discussions between confused mothers of mixed race babies:

Carmen: “When my daughter was born the hospital put black on all of her documents (immunizations etc). I am black and my hubby is white, I thought it was a little weird that they should ignore the fact that my child is bi-racial. The nurses told me, (a little condescendingly mind you) that ALL government doc default to the race of the birth mother. So I had a question for the white mothers with bi-racial children with black fathers, did they put white on your child’s documents? Or was this some backwards thing they do just to black mothers?” –Circle of Moms (2010)

Ultimately this all gets pretty sticky when we consider birth certificate data has played a long-standing role in public health planning, action and funding. Leaving me, as always, with more questions than answers. How does the inaccuracy of recording mixed race impact the lives and representation of multiracial people? And how do us parents experience this inaccuracy as we are asked again and again to identify our multiracial children?

See my blog here.

1. Tashiro, Cathy J. “Mixed but Not Matched: Multiracial People and the Organization of Health Knowledge”. The Sum of Our Parts. Ed. Teresa Williams-León and Cynthia L. Nakashima. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. 173-182. Print.


  1. So what is accuracy when is come to “race”?

    Race is not biology, race is not anthropology, race is not genetics, race is not math, race is not pure, race is not truth. Race is an evolving convention that is constantly being constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed to preserve the hegemony of those holding social and political power.

    • Sharon Chang Author

      Yes, exactly. And so it is very, very tricky when we start organizing health knowledge by race. For example, studies have found huge discrepancies between race on birth and death certificates. That is, the same person may be one race at birth and an entirely different race upon their death. Why? Well one reason is that parent(s) or medical professionals often record birth race while coroners record death race. More to the point. This birth/death discrepancy brings life-long tracking of a person’s race into deep question. If race is that arbitrary and fluid, and so frequently constructed by others, how dependable is it in scientific data? Consider this. Other studies have found, disturbingly, that death race can be affected by coroner stereotypes or biases associated with certain causes of death. Yikes (sigh). What a vicious feedback loop.

    • Begneli2011

      Race is not biology?? If two Caucasoids breed you get a Caucasoid every single time, same for Mongoloids and Negroids. Two Negroids breed never produces a Mongoloid. It is called breeding true. Biology is science and you are talking politics and confusing the two.

  2. Earl Smith

    OK, I addressed this in class last week!

    Whether the father or mother is used to identify “race” of the child when the MOTHER is White and the father Black the child’s race will be Black.

    Yet, if the father is White and the mother Black the child will always be labeled Black.

    The examples of this racism are walking all around us everyday.

    Silence enveloped the class after the discussion.

    Keep up the good work.

    Earl Smith

    • Begneli2011

      It is known as the one drop rule. One drop of Negroid blood produces a Negro. Not fair and all politics. There was a movie back in the 1950’s with Lana Turner about a mixed race girl who could pass for white. Interesting movie for the times. I wish we were smarter than we are.

  3. ObviousQuestion

    The real discussion should be why is the government continuing the racist practice of recording and deciding race in the first place. Most of the discussion here is along the lines of race being a pointless assignment. So why not start making the government abandon the practice?

    There is the obvious exception for direct identification related to criminal behavior since it provides a quick, rough ID. That also needs connected to clothing, hair style, gender ….


  1. Mixed Race Studies » Scholarly Perspectives on Mixed-Race » The Race of Birth: Systemic Racism Again?
  2. A DAUGHTER’S GRIEF ::: ::: ::: LUTO D’UNA FIGLIA – crazyholecook

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