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How to ask ethnicity survey questions

The more demographic questions you include in a survey, the more detailed profile you’ll have of your target audience.

Ethnicity survey questions are just as important as standard survey questions like age and geography. A detailed profile of your target audience— people who are likely buy your products or services—is invaluable. With this information, you'll have a better idea of who your customers are and what they want. 

While ethnicity survey questions are standard in surveys, it’s still important to be cautious of how such questions are asked. This article will educate you on what ethnicity survey questions are and clarify the definitions of ethnicity and race. You’ll come away with a better understanding of the advantages and limitations of race and ethnicity survey questions, why they’re important, and how to frame them better.  

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What are ethnicity survey questions?

An ethnicity survey question is usually part of a survey’s section where you ask demographic information. Demographic survey questions represent the characteristics of a human population. An ethnicity survey question asks respondents about their ancestral background and represents culturally historical information that reflects their society and possibly even linguistics. Survey questions about ethnicity are essential for market research. It helps businesses understand their customers better, and more importantly, it helps them communicate with potential customers. 

These questions are used to gather statistical information about racial groups. This information can be helpful in the workplace, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations to ensure an inclusive culture. Racial groups typically reflect cultural, societal characteristics, and preferences valuable to businesses with products and services specific to that culture. For example, food, fashion, beauty and holistic health essentials differ in every culture. Companies that sell ethnic beauty products can benefit from survey questions about ethnicity.

Learn more about gathering demographic information from surveys.

Advantages of asking ethnicity survey questions

Including questions about ethnicity for feedback and insights can help you make informed strategic business decisions. Detailed demographic data will help you filter which market segment the people in your target audience best fit. You’ll be able to better plan promotions and set pricing based on the needs and interests of that particular demographic. You’ll also highlight areas of discrimination while championing greater diversity, inclusion, and equity (DEI) in the workplace.

Determine promotions and pricing based on needs and interests

In certain instances, ethnicity can represent geography. With enough data, geography can also reflect income. If your product or service is targeted toward a certain demographic, make sure it’s priced so that it’s not over or undervalued. For example, more Walmart stores sell moderately-priced commodities in lower-to-middle-class communities than in high-priced neighborhoods. It’s unlikely you’ll find a Prada store selling their premium products adjacent to Walmart. 

Make informed strategic decisions 

Collecting ethnicity questions on a survey is a way to avoid assuming your targeted consumer base consists of a certain demographic. For a fishing, hunting, and boating company to assume a particular demographic, their customer base could truncate potential revenue, excluding some consumers. This assumption can easily be made by advertising to people the company thinks is interested in their product. As a result, the forgotten demographic is overlooked and not informed. Thus, they are excluded from a potential customer base. In other words, informed strategic marketing decisions can increase revenue. 

Achieving DEI in the workplace 

Including an ethnicity question on a survey for work purposes empowers you with more detailed information about your employees. If used correctly, this information prevents exclusion from other races and cultures when hiring and promoting. It also helps management make well-informed decisions that educate and create a safe and inclusive work culture. For example, if you want to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in your company, use ethnicity survey questions as information to assess if there’s a demographic among your employees who have been undervalued. If so, you can create employee resource groups (ERGs) like SurveyMonkey Blatinos, Mosaic, The Queerious, WIN, and Womxn in Engineering. All of these groups highlight specific cultures within the company’s workplace.  

Highlight areas of discrimination

An ethnic group survey question can also shine a light on inequity and favoritism. For example, if a certain group of people are employed in low-paying positions and overlooked during opportunities for advancement and promotion, administering a well-thought-out and carefully-worded questionnaire will confirm this problem. Decision makers can foster a more inclusive work environment that gives all employees a sense of belonging and value. Additionally, ERGs can educate management about fostering a more inclusive environment to avoid future exclusion. When employees feel valued, they typically do a better job by putting in more effort with fewer absences and tardiness. Happy employees can increase work morale, productivity, and overall revenue.

Learn how you can measure DEI in your organization. 

Limitations of ethnicity survey questions

Implementing ethnic survey questions can also have some challenges. If such questions aren’t asked correctly, you can risk confusing and alienating the respondent. They could even be offended. Having a better understanding of some of the risks that come with asking ethnicity questions in a survey will empower you with information on what to avoid going forward. 

The risk of alienation

Alienation can be a mental or physical issue for some people. Sometimes, highlighting a particular group could be perceived as separation from the rest of the employees, causing isolation and self-estrangement. Self-estrangement is alienation or detachment from one’s nature, feelings, or activities. Being widely recognized in a workplace because of ethnicity could make those people uncomfortable. On the other hand, they may have already suffered from alienation because they were overlooked due to their ethnicity. 

Confusion 

There are many ethnicities. How would you ask about ethnicity on a survey to avoid confusion? Asking questions incorrectly about ethnicity can result in skewed feedback or an uncompleted survey. It takes experts who have researched to develop strategic and non-offensive questions about ethnicity. Use our US demographics survey template access our expert-written questions about ethnicity. 

Offending your survey respondents by asking personal information

Ethnicity questions are standard for most feedback and insights, but they're also personal. Because ethnicity questions are personal, it’s best to use them only if the data is crucial to your research. If you plan to use the information for your research, let the respondent know. If you explain why you’re asking for personal information and why you intend to use it, they may be more willing to answer your question and not skip it or drop out of the survey. 

Ethnicity vs. race

When asking an ethnicity question in a survey, make sure you understand the difference between race and ethnicity. Using these terms interchangeably in a query may confuse or offend a respondent, causing them to ignore the question or exit the survey altogether. Provide a list of answers that specifically addresses ethnicity and race. The main difference between ethnicity and race is that ethnicity refers to the cultural background and place of origin. Race is based on analogous biological and physical attributes. 

See our example of this Race & Hispanic origin survey template.

5 best practices for writing ethnicity survey questions

Composing ethnicity survey questions can be tricky. You don’t want to offend respondents, but you also want to collect the right type of feedback to benefit your research. Here’s a shortlist of five best practices for creating your next survey that involves sensitive questions like ethnicity:

  1. Ensure these questions are relevant to your goals 

Avoid using ethnicity questions like standard survey questions like name and age. Make sure you have a clear objective of why you’re conducting the research. Next, base all your questions on that objective. It’ll be helpful during analyses because you’ll have only relevant information.

  1. Give respondents the option to opt out

Providing optional answers like: “I don’t know” or “I prefer not to answer” offers respondents the choice not to answer a question. Giving them a chance to opt-out increases the probability of continuing the survey. This option also establishes trust with respondents and the security of not feeling so much pressure.

  1. Explain how ethnicity data will be used

Disclosing as much transparency as possible in your survey is another way to establish trust. Otherwise, you risk suspicion. Suspicious respondents might withhold information resulting in subpar feedback. If respondents trust why you’re asking such sensitive information, they’ll be more receptive to completing the survey. 

  1. Let respondents specify an option outside of those provided

In addition to offering an opportunity to opt-out, give respondents another chance to add a response. For example, add “other” to your list of answers or leave a text box for them to fill in the blank. If you provide this option, limit the characters to a number that’s easy to analyze when the feedback comes in.

  1. Consider regional differences that may affect how people answer

Regional differences impacting research studies are time, economics, culture, and social surroundings. These differences can influence different personalities. Such personalities need to be taken into account when crafting and analyzing surveys.  

Ethnicity survey question examples

How do you ask an ethnicity survey question the right way? How should you phrase a race question? To help get you started, here’s a list of helpful tips and sample ethnicity survey questions:

  • Which race or ethnicity best describes you? (Please choose only one.)
    • American Indian or Alaskan Native
    • Asian / Pacific Islander
    • Black or African American
    • Hispanic
    • White / Caucasian
    • Multiple ethnicity/ Other (please specify)

This question can be worded in many ways that provide the same list of answers. How you word a question could make all the difference, especially regarding regional differences. Here’s a shortlist of the same question asked differently:

  • What racial or ethnic groups describe you?
  • What race/ethnicity best describes you?
  • What do you consider yourself to be?
  • Ethnicity: (insert what best describes your ethnicity)

The takeaway here is that you should also focus on how you want respondents to answer. Instead of restricting them to one answer, give them the option to choose more than one. Add one that says, “select all that apply.” This choice empowers respondents to offer additional insights about cultural identity allowing you to understand your target audience.

  • <IF “Hispanic or Latino/a” NOT selected in previous question> Are you of Hispanic or Latino/a origin? 
    • Yes
    • No

This question is an example of question logic. Question logic allows you to customize questions according to how respondents answer the previous inquiry. This feature automatically creates a custom survey for each respondent.

Further reading

Through ethnicity and race, you’ll understand certain background characteristics about of an audience. However, because ethnicity and race are standard demographic survey questions, they’re still considered sensitive survey questions. Therefore, they should always be asked respectfully. 

In addition to ethnicity, other sensitive survey questions involve income, sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion. These questions can appeal to businesses interested in cultivating diversity, equity, and inclusion in their work environment. 

Start writing demographic questions for your next survey. Learn how to analyze feedback with a SurveyMonkey AI-powered platform.

What is your ethnicity survey question?

Gather the information you need on sensitive topics like ethnicity and race through a bank of researched templates provided by SurveyMonkey. Choose the question you think offers the feedback and insights you’re looking for. Next, customize your answers to keep respondents engaged and curious enough to read and answer the next question and the question after that. 

Try it for yourself and design the ideal survey for your next marketing campaign.

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