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2010 Census: Stressed Out of the Box

The number of boxes we check on the Census depends on the ways in which we think about race and ethnicity as well as the material resources and privileges attached to those ways of thinking.
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Robert M. Groves, Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, sent me a letter today. Mr. Groves told me that my 2010 Census form will be arriving sometime next week and that my "response is important. Results from the 2010 Census will be used to help each community get its fair share of government funds for highways, schools, health facilities and many other programs." According to the Bureau, census data directly affect how more than $200 billion per year in federal and state funding is allocated. The letter went on to stress the importance of "a complete and accurate census" as an issue of fairness to my "community." After reading this letter I have a question for Mr. Groves: Is the U.S. Census fair to me?

Here's why I ask. Over the years I've been part of the hard to quantify mixed race community. Though the check all that apply option of the 2000 census did open up the options for me to identify myself racially, I still felt and feel like an accurate description of my racial and ethnic identity lies somewhere on the margins of the form. To be clear, I have no issue with counting people by race and ethnicity. Let's face it. Counting is useful for enforcing civil rights laws, like fair employment practices and the Voting Rights Act. And, according to the Federal Government, the Census categories adhere to "a social definition of race recognized in this country. They do not conform to any biological, anthropological, or genetic criteria." But the social categories are never fully defined or accurate. That's why they provoke an argument about identification, equality, ethics and belonging in an increasingly diverse society.

Some argue that "the census was never meant as -- nor should it be -- a site for self-expression." Instead of marking more than one race when the 2010 Census appears in our mailboxes, they encourage us to "think twice and consider checking once." This argument is based on the claim that a political focus on mixed race identity is, by definition, "post-racial" and nothing more than a case of the emperor's new clothes. In other words, checking all that apply is a step back in time to when whiteness reigned supreme and communities of color were denied rights, justice and funding. For those who see it this way post-racial equals pre-civil rights.

Others tell a different story. For instance, proponents of the "Mixed Race Bill of Rights" argue that people of mixed race and ethnicity have the rights to: "identify...differently than strangers expect [them] to identify; identify differently than how [previous generations] identify [them]; identify... differently than... brothers and sisters; identify... different[ly] in different situations;... [and,] not to keep the races separate within [them]." For this group the move to identify themselves in terms of their full complexity is a move past traditional social definitions of race that are limiting. Put simply, "post" equals a future beyond race as a story of parts and wholes...a step forward in a new direction.

A friend's story makes this clear. "My nephews are part Hispanic and Black and on my visit to their home during the holidays the 16-year-old filled out an application at the local grocery store. When he returned I asked, 'how did it go?' He said everything went fine but he was puzzled as to why he had to choose what race he was on the application. I surely thought by now his parents had this conversation with him. His choices were to check the mixed race box, Hispanic or Black box. I asked him if he had chosen and he said he left it empty. He looked kind of sad by the eyes and asked me why did he have to choose? Sadly, I had no real explanation that would satisfy him because he made a very valid point. Why does a person have to choose? He kept pondering the questions 'will I get the job if I am black or will I get the job if I am Hispanic? Are my chances better if I choose mixed race?' It saddens me to think that we still have not come far enough. What a great way to confuse a 16-year-old who is applying for his first job in America." Our next generation is clearly looking for a new racial narrative. By being forced to check "Black/non-Hispanic" and also checking "Hispanic" this 16-year-old felt nullified. He checked nothing because he was stressed out of the box. I and many others can relate.

But there is another, rarely discussed, aspect to being stressed out of the box. Another friend of mine who is African American and Japanese explained to me how his ability to check all boxes that apply became a matter of life and death. This friend recently had a prostate cancer scare. This disease strikes African American men early in life but the strain is often curable. This disease strikes Asian men late in life and is rarely curable. So, as my friend tells it, if he hadn't been able to identify himself completely on the Census and on medical documents he might not have been tested for both strains and his disease might not have been treated. His story is politically incorrect insofar as it connects race to biology. However, it along with the previous story show that more complete methods of racial identification are issues of mental and physical health--not just trendiness.

With that said, the number of boxes we check on the Census depends on the ways in which we think about race and ethnicity as well as the material resources and privileges attached to those ways of thinking. If we're looking for a more definitive answer to the question "so, what are you anyway?" we might try posing it to everyone who wishes to "stand up and be counted," not only those of mixed race.

For more on this and related topics please see blog and research sections of the author's website.