The U.S. government is in the midst of one of the most ambitious racial/ethnic labeling exercises in history. Purpose is to figure out the race or national origin of each of the nation's 2.8 million bureaucrats without offending any of them.

To get at peoples' roots displomatically, Uncle Sam uses localized yardsticks to measure color and nationality. Because ours is a complicated society, definitions very from Washington to Honolulu to San Juan.

Federal workers here, in Guam and in every state but Hawaii had the option in January of picking another race or national origin if they didn't like the listing they had on file. Options offered here and elsewhere included (A) American Indian or Alaskan Native, (B) Asian or Pacific Islander, (C) Black, not of Hispanic origin, (D) Hispanic or (E) White, not of Hispanic origin. It will be some months before the government knows its As from its Es.

At the same time federal workers in Puerto Rico, conforming with Census Bureau guidelines, were given two choices. They could list themselves as either (1) Hispanic or (2) Not Hispanic.

The trickiest head count of all will take place this fall in Hawaii, which is, as any anthropologist will tell you, wonderfully mixed up. The 30,000 plus federal civil servants in the island paradise will have 15 different choices. They will have the same A through E options as colleagues in Washington, but also will be able to more closely identify themselves as (F) Asian Indian, (G) Chinese, (H) Filipino, (J) Guamanian, (K) Hawaiian, (L) Japanese, (M) Korean, (N) Samoan, (P) Vietnamese or (Q) All other Asian or Pacific Islanders.

Idea behind all this is to help government develop better equal employment opportunity data, it says, and to conform with Commerce Department guidelines of race/ethnicity. By law, employes may designate themselves anything they want, within the geographic choices offered. That means a blue-eyed, blond could list himself as Japanese in Hawaii or black in Washington or Wyoming. Federal supervisors have been told to counsel people who do such things, but not to change anyone's designation if his mind is made up.

In the 1960s, the government shifted from an "eyeballing" system, under which supervisors listed the race and ethnicity of employes, to a self-designation system. The results were embarrassing in a couple of places. Hundreds of State Department employes, who wouldn't know a peace pipe from a piece of pipe, said they were American Indians. It made State look awfully good in its affirmative action program, but did not do much to give an accurate picture of the makeup of the department.

The result was that many agencies and departments went back to the eyeballing method. Officials hope to have an accurate racial/ethnic head count of mainland workers, as well as those in Guam, Alaska and Puerto Rico fairly soon. Hawaii will take a little longer. Results from several places may be surprising.