Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

A Sensitive Question: Asking about Race in a Research Interview

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

A Sensitive Question: Asking about Race in a Research Interview

Article excerpt

I had my fingers crossed that no patients with diabetes would be scheduled for my research shift. Although they were our "priority population" for our study (a larger, multi-method assessment of mediated patient education materials designed for individuals who experience low-health literacy and who have diabetes) if none showed up at the clinic that day, I was in the clear. However, when I looked at the clinic's patient roster that morning, it turned out there were three potential diabetic patients to interview. Damn. I would have never admitted this to any of the student interviewers on the research team, but I hated these patient interviews. Each one guaranteed a tension headache. Not because the interviews themselves were particularly difficult. As a research team we had devoted substantial effort to designing a tight and consistent interview protocol. Nope. It was just thinking about asking that last question on the protocol that made me reach for the Excedrin bottle in my purse. I hated that question.

Laura "Today there are many terms used to describe a person's race. What term would you use to describe your race?"

That question, which was designed to ascertain a "simple demographic fact" from a group of research participants, was not only uncomfortable for Laura; it was uncomfortable for our entire research team. Why? Because as Orbe and Allen (2008) contend "race matters" (p. 201). And embedded within that question was a complex and nuanced history of racial politics that members of our research team found hard to negotiate discursively. If you don't think so, just ask that question out-loud--to a stranger. It is for this reason that we chose to unpack the asking of that question in one set of research interviews. Such moments are important to investigate because they reveal many of the ways that race talk, as it is manifested in seemingly mundane ways in everyday social interactions, continues as an "enduring, contested phenomenon" (Allen, 2007, p. 259), which influences myriad racial inequities in our culture in systemic and pervasive ways. Asking this uncomfortable question also led us to examine critically the ubiquitous but often unchallenged research practice of collecting data about participants' race.

Race is a demographic variable reported frequently in academic journals to provide readers one of the bases upon which to make inferences about group similarities and differences among participants in any given study. However, participants are usually asked this question and report their response in written form. Given the circumstances of our larger research study, which focused on patients of varying literacy levels, we believed we needed to ask the race question orally, as we could not assume our participants could read. As indicated in the opening narrative, the prospect of asking someone to identify their race out-loud, face-to-face was extremely challenging, causing members on our research team to experience great apprehension and tension. And, after analyzing those portions of our interviews in which members of our research team actually asked patient participants about their race, we verified that the dynamics surrounding the asking of this question were marked with specific communicative indicators of uneasiness, confusion, and resistance.

Our objectives in this analysis were to examine the discourse used in a particular context: The research interview. Specifically, we analyzed the discursive strategies used by interviewers on our research team as they asked patient participants to identify their race, as well as the discursive strategies used by patient participants in the study who answered the race question. Our rationale for attending to how these strategies were used in our own work was simple. By one, acknowledging the saliency of race as a key cultural force that is enacted at micro-levels through verbal interaction, and two, critiquing the convention that privileges the often unquestioned inclusion of the race variable in research, we wished to answer Allen's (2007) call to add to the nascent, but important work being done in the academic community concerning how scholars "conceptualize, conduct, report, and disseminate research" involving race (p. …

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