In 2020, perhaps for the first time, white Americans will be asked a question that has been lobbed innocently and invidiously at minorities for years: "So where are you really from?"
And it will be the government doing the asking.
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau revealed its proposed questionnaire for the 2020 Census in advance of a March 31 deadline for its delivery to Congress for review. The updated format did not accommodate many suggestions made since 2010. It doesn't ask about citizenship status (despite a request to do so by the Trump Justice Department) and won't include a separate Middle Eastern and North African category in its question about race.
But there are some key changes to the questions about race and ethnicity. In particular, black and white respondents will be asked to provide specific information about their origins. Rather than just marking a single race, respondents will be prodded for a bit more information: For the text box under the "White" checkbox, the census instructions helpfully state: "Print, for example, German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, etc."
The data obtained is likely to be extremely messy, and it is not immediately clear how it will be put to use. (What exactly does the Census Bureau plan to do for the emergent category of white Egyptians?) Still, this change is a good thing — especially for white Americans.
Why? On a basic level, it could be a welcome exercise in empathy. You're offended? Confused? Welcome to the world of being a visible minority in America — perhaps you might relate to those Asian Americans who are so frequently informed that they couldn't really be from Connecticut, or African Americans whose countries of origin are obscured by the painful haze of slavery. It might even be good practice for 2044, the year the United States is projected to become a majority-minority country.
But on a broader scale, this new question could be a step toward dismantling the binary racial categories that have held America back since its founding. By asking whites to consider whence their supposed "whiteness" derives, the census may begin to help break down our country's persistent belief in whiteness as some monolithic norm.
After all, race — as the Census Bureau itself readily admits — is a social-political construct. Distinct, but devoid of much complexity (until now!), whiteness in America was originally defined only in opposition to — and implicitly and explicitly valued over — being brown or black. For the first several decades of the census, white and black were the only categories; "black" was broken out into other definitions, but all were explicitly not-white. Previous generations of Irish, Italian and other immigrants were seen as not-white — until suddenly, for a variety of reasons, they were.
"White" is a necessarily vague category, but it has significant benefits. Most notable is that those under its umbrella are rarely asked to shoulder the burdens of being an outsider in America: at its best a physically and psychologically exhausting existence, at worst a determinant for a host of subpar social, economic and political outcomes. In contrast, whiteness has long been seen as the default neutral, a way to leave other concerns behind. That preferencing may be part of the reason some immigrants who can pass as white (usually those of Hispanic descent) have frequently begun to identify as white as they assimilate.
This new census question upsets that thinking. Adding color to the binary definition of whiteness could push us all to come to terms with what being white really means. Is it many things, or nothing? Is it broader or emptier than we thought? Can it contain multitudes? Opening up about origins will allow greater visibility into the true diversity of America. And with so many distinctions and gradations newly visible, we may be able to focus on new conceptions of unity that can include us all.
Naturally, some worry that all this will be fodder for more division — an excuse for an ever more narrowly sliced "identity" politics, and a hindrance to our melting pot ideal. Conservative critics have cited Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who wrote about "the historic theory of America as one people — the theory that has thus managed to keep American society whole."
Schlesinger was optimistic. We have consistently failed to live up to that ideal, and America has always been subject to divides along racial lines. The racial animus that launched the Trump administration — and continues to flourish under it — only makes that more clear.
So why not try a new tack? This new census can help us to acknowledge difference and create a new racial vision that might finally cross color lines. Now we're all "Other" Americans — yes, even whites.
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