Why Obama should not have checked 'black' on his census form

President Obama fills out his census form in the Oval Office on March 29.
President Obama fills out his census form in the Oval Office on March 29. (Pete Souza/the White House)
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By Elizabeth Chang
Thursday, April 29, 2010

I have always considered Barack Obama to be biracial, and I had hoped that his election would help our country move beyond the tired concept of race. Unfortunately, the president is not getting with my program.

Although I knew Obama self-identifies as African American, I was disappointed when I read that that's what he checked on his census form. The federal government, finally heeding the desires of multiracial people to be able to accurately define themselves, had changed the rules in 2000, so he could have also checked white. Or he could have checked "some other race." Instead, Obama went with black alone.

Despite being raised by a white mother and white grandparents, despite have spent most of his childhood in the rainbow state of Hawaii, despite clearly being comfortable in almost any type of crowd (though I suppose Tea Partyers might give him pause), the president apparently considers himself only black. "I self-identify as an African American. That's how I am treated and that's how I am viewed. And I'm proud of it," he has said. But he also argued in his famous speech about race that he could no more disown the Reverend Jeremiah Wright "than I can my white grandmother." With his census choice, he has done precisely that.

I am the mother of biracial children (Asian/Caucasian) and believe that multiracial people need to be accepted and acknowledged -- even celebrated. The president's choice disappoints me, and it seems somewhat disingenuous. Obama, who has also referred to himself as a "mutt," made a big deal during the 2008 campaign of being able to relate to Hawaiians and Midwesterners, Harvard grads and salespeople, blacks, whites, Latinos, whatever -- precisely because of his "unconventional" background and multicultural exposure. On the census, however, he has effectively said that when it counts, he is black.

Michelle Hughes, president of the Chicago Biracial Family Network, told a reporter that she, too, was disappointed. "I think his choice will have political, social and cultural ramifications," she added.

I agree. I also wonder: Aren't people supposed to fill out their census forms accurately? Why else are we doing it? If everyone put down on the form how they "identified," I don't know what kind of count we'd wind up with, but clearly it would not reflect the racial makeup of the United States. As many have argued, race is an almost useless construct, so that might not matter, except in one very important area: If every biracial person chose one race, as Obama did, or as people had to do before the forms were changed in 2000, the census would portray a society more divided than it actually is. I'm all for tossing the whole racial-classification bit now, but I also know that if we fill out our forms accurately, the numbers will someday do that for us by quantifying the ridiculousness of race. In the meantime, if we aren't going to get rid of the racial category, we need to do it right.

Some have said that by putting himself in one box instead of two, Obama is simply exhibiting pride in being African American. I can appreciate that. But there is an important consequence when our president does not acknowledge half of his heritage, or, more basically, the mother and grandparents who raised him, or even his commonality with his sister, who is also biracial, though with a different mix. If the most powerful person in this country says that because society thinks he looks black, he is black, it sends a message that biracial children have to identify with the side they most resemble. That might be a problem for my daughters, who consider themselves Jewish, Chinese and, because it's the Chang family's home state, Hawaiian, yet are most often mistaken for Latinas. They usually shrug off that misperception, and I am glad. After all, if we let society determine what we are, we will never change society.

The writer is an editor of The Post's Sunday Magazine.


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