2010 Census: Stressed Out of the Box

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...pics borrowed from Wordpress.Com
...full text also found on The Huffington Post

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 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 social 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.


Time Magazine agrees with you

Importance of mixed race donors

Apparently, "if you’re of mixed race, the chances of finding a match are as likely as winning the lottery..."


2000 Census

I recently looked at the 2010 Census and it brought to light many of the same issues for me as expressed in your post. Even though I was only 13 when the new 2000 census form debuted I was overjoyed with the ability to "correctly" represent myself. But, as I read your post and the Mixed Bill of Rights I realized just how limited I feel by even the ability to check "Black" and "Mexican". I don't know about others, but for me being a multiracial person is much more than just the sum of my parts.

Additionally, as expressed by the story of the 16 year-old teen…I too have agonized over the ramifications of choosing/representing one race over the other or both. It’s a difficult world to live in…trying to balance on a very thin tight rope walk.

Monoracials puzzled too


It seems that many monoracials are also puzzled by the race and ethnicity questions on the short form.


You never really know "Mixed" Stories until you read them:

While reading your friend's story I felt like I could also see the sadness in her nephew's eyes. My cousins are mixed and it makes me wonder if this is how they feel every time they fill out a form.

Jaycee, Writer for http://www.lightherlamp.com

It's not just the census

I run into this problem frequently as my two children are multi-racial(caucasian, native-american, and african-american). I generally check all that apply or other but recently noticed their school had simply checked the caucasian box.


Breaking News: Latinos as Post-Racial

It seems that many of us are stressed out of the box! Thanks for bringing this up Marcia.

~Karen B.


Thanks for sharing!

Thanks so much for posting this! We hope to get your blog linked up on mixedandhappy.com very soon. Working on a "sites we love" page right now. Love the work you are doing!


Just reading about your

Just reading about your friend's nephew makes me think. Such pressure on him to check the "right" box, when in reality it shouldn't matter one bit. Scenarios like this really make me think about how my husband and I need to prepare our future children for the realities of being labeled in our society, while balancing that with a positive self-image and confidence. Boy- I'm going to need a lot of guidance!

E. Marino Brown

some thoughts

Your article reveals some of the controversies surrounding the “racial category” question on the census including the “not a site for self-expression” and “parental betrayal” arguments. The real question might be, “not what boxes are checked, but how the checked boxes are counted”.

In my opinion, the way to reduce the stress of box checking is to read, and reread the paragraph that explains census question number 9.

Asked since 1790. Race is key to implementing many federal laws and is needed to monitor compliance with the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Acts. State governments use the data to determine congressional, state and local voting districts. Race data are also used to assess fairness of employment practices, to monitor racial disparities in characteristics such as health and education and to plan and obtain funds for public services.

Steven Riley

This description, like all the others on the form, have evolved over the years from the tireless work of government officials. Most government processes—even under the best of circumstances—are the result of a combination (and compromise) of an adherence to law, a willingness to seek the truth, a deference to custom and tradition, a commitment to justice, and an acknowledgement to politics. It is not perfect, but it is the best we have. Our national census is a once-in-ten-year opportunity to collect demographic information that is vital in maintaining a fair and just democracy.

The Census Bureau does not enter into the fray of whether or not ‘race’ is a biological construction—of course, it is not. It does however, accept that ‘race’ is a sociopolitical construction, or as Melissa Harris-Lacewell says, “is constructed through law, history, culture, practice, custom, etc.” ‘Race’ and racism exists in a social paradigm, not a psychological paradigm. One does not discriminate again one’s self. I would rewrite your statement:

“…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…”


“…the number of boxes we check on the Census depends on the ways in which we think about our own racial and ethnicity identity as well as the material resources and privileges attached to those ways of thinking by society as a whole…”

So for the sake of ending discrimination and eliminating health and educational disparities, I shall muse on the notion that one should select one’s self-reflected race. In other words, select the ‘race’ you think others (society) perceive you (or your children) as. If you believe that society perceives you as a black/white multiracial individual, then check the “White” and “Black” boxes. If you, like Harris-Lacewell—who has one black and one white parent—believe that society perceives you as she says, “Black… with Access to Residual White Privilege (BWATRWP)”, then check only the “Black” box. Regardless of box(es) checked by your friend who survived the prostate cancer scare, he still can entire whatever relevant racial information he deems necessary on his medical forms. Those who may feel that identifying as multiracial on the census might impede anti-discrimination goals, should read Nancy Leong’s lengthy article titled Judicial Erasure of Mixed Race Discrimination where she describes persistent racism directed a individuals specifically because they are of mixed-race.

Race v. Ethnicity

One of the things we need to talk about here is the distinction (or lack thereof) between race and ethnicity as laid out in the Census. Many people question whether a person can check "black/non-Hispanic" for race and then "Hispanic" for ethnicity. For those who have to make these selections it can be confusing. For those who don't understand the distinction, like Torii Hunter, it can appear as though some are "imposters."

Check out this article: http://sports.espn.go.com/los-angeles/mlb/news/story?id=4983236

--Sammy J.