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OUE Research Spotlight Student Racial/Ethnic Identity: Our Process and a Focus on Hispanic and Latino/a/e/x Identities

Insights from the OUE Research Team

September 15th- October 15th is National Hispanic Heritage Month. In honor of this, we wanted to share a bit about our process for asking students to share their racial and ethnic identities, and how we use those data in our analyses and reporting. We acknowledge the complexity of capturing identity in a way that is true to individuals’ self-descriptions; the harmful history of racial and ethnic categorization in scientific research (see, for example, psychology’s contributions to beliefs in human hierarchy, and APA’s apology); and also the importance of disaggregating data based on race and ethnicity (and other factors linked to systemic oppression in the United States) to provide a complete picture of where we are serving students equitably and where we need to improve. We recognize that language is continually evolving and strive to use terms that are consistent with the language people use to describe themselves. We will not and have not always gotten this right, but are committed to learning, taking responsibility, and revising our approach as we learn from our students and colleagues in this work.

In furtherance of our goal to describe people the way they describe themselves, we ask students to self-describe their racial and ethnic identities in an open-ended manner. This approach, we hope, also avoids perpetuating experiences of identity denial that many individuals experience when they have to choose from predefined categories that don’t fit their self-identification (e.g., Albuja et al., 2019). Based on these self-identifications, we then create broader groups in our data that roughly align with institutional categories defined by the federal government (IPEDS), although they do not exactly overlap.

One group for whom our terminology has evolved in recent years is Hispanic and Latino/a/e/x students, who may share a common language (Spanish) and/or geographical heritage (origins in Latin America and the Caribbean), and also represent a diversity of backgrounds and experiences on these dimensions (see here for further information about the complex interplay of language, geography, identity, and terminology). We have previously referred to this group as Hispanic/Latino, Latino/a, and Latinx students, and our current terminology is Hispanic/Latino/a/e/x. Approximately 14% of Duke undergraduates identify as Hispanic and Latino/a/e/x. In our research, students self-describe their racial and ethnic backgrounds using the terms (in descending order of frequency) HispanicLatinoLatinxLatina, and Latine, sometimes accompanied by more specific terms like Mexican American, Colombian, Brazilian, or Cuban. The term Latine (pronounced Latin-eh) is relatively new in our data, first appearing in Spring 2023, and has emerged as a gender-inclusive term (like Latinx) that is more accepted and used in Spanish-speaking countries (Cardemil et al., 2019), as the ‘x’ sound at the end of Latinx is not common in Spanish.