Correction to This Article
The article about ethnic and racial categories on the census form, in discussing whether people with origins in Haiti and the Dominican Republic are considered Hispanic, incorrectly referred to the island where those countries are located as Dominica. That island is Hispaniola; Dominica is another island in the West Indies.

In multiracial America, the census puts us in a box

By Susan Straight
Sunday, March 21, 2010

I received the census form in the mail last week, and I was ready. A vaguely admonitory letter from the Census Bureau had arrived the week before, urging me to fill out the form because the results would be used to "help each community get its fair share of government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need." It ended with a warning: "Without a complete, accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share."

That's a lot of fairness and sharing and community going on. But as my three daughters and I talked about the form -- and in particular its racial and ethnic categories -- we started wondering: How does the census really define our community, and how would that affect whatever our fair share would be?

The first time I got to check a census box for a child, it was 1990. I had an 8-month-old daughter with curly, brown-black hair, cinnamon-dark eyes and almond-colored skin. Her father is a mix of African, Irish and Native American; I am white; and since we could check only one box, the only option available for her was "Other," as if she were from a different planet.

By the time the 2000 Census rolled around, I had two more girls, and we were allowed to check more than one box. Cool. We checked White, African American and Native American. And on this latest form, we can still check as many boxes -- there are more than a dozen -- as we need.

My eldest daughter called just after the census envelope was delivered. She's in London, where she is studying abroad as a college junior. Her classes focus on "commodification" -- how slaves, sugar, rum and other "goods" were traded around the world, with England as the hub. I opened the form while on the phone. We were curious about the boxes I would use to categorize her, this young woman who was once an Other. After name, sex, and age, we got to the first of two big questions: Is Person 1 of Hispanic origin? "For this census, Hispanic origins are not races," the form read. So someone can identity as Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban or write in another origin -- Argentinean, Dominican, Spaniard, etc.

We tried to translate why that matters. So if you're Haitian, you're not Hispanic, because French people brought Africans to that part of the island of Dominica. If you're Dominican, you are Hispanic, because Spaniards brought Africans to the other part. That's about language, I thought. But my daughter got serious and said: "That was for a commodity -- sugar. It's still about race and slavery. Dad wouldn't be in America if someone hadn't brought Africans here to work."

The second big question: What is Person 1's race? We could mark one or more of the following choices: White (plain old white -- no qualifiers). Black, African American or Negro. American Indian or Alaska Native (write in enrolled or principal tribe). Asian Indian. Chinese. Filipino. Japanese. Korean. Vietnamese. Native Hawaiian. Guamanian or Chamorro. Samoan. And then, Other Asian, with an arrow designating where a person can write in, for example, Hmong, Laotian, Thai, Pakistani, Cambodian, etc. And Other Pacific Islander, under which a person may write Fijian, Tongan, etc.

Last choice?

"Some other race -- print race," arrow. That will have to cover a lot of people born in a lot of other places, including many Arab Americans, a growing population.

A few years ago, for a book put out by McSweeney's called "The Future Dictionary of America," I wrote a new term and its definition: "erasial scattegories: n. the section of the official Census of 2030 which abandons the requirement that United States residents identify themselves, their children, or whoever lives at their address by checking boxes such as 'White' or 'Black' or 'Hispanic' or 'Some Difficult to Define Really Cool Shade of Gold Resulting from Six Generations of Intermarriage Among Racial Groups.' "

That's what my youngest kid, and last one at home, looks like. A really cool shade of gold. She rolled her eyes when I showed her the census form last week. Then I asked her: "What if everyone lied or made up a fantasy about who they were?"

"Really, Mom? Really? Why would they do that?" she said, in the condescending tone of 14-year-old girls.

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