Look in the mirror and what do you see?
When the census form arrives in mailboxes this week, the complex answers to that question will help paint America’s evolving portrait, with repercussions for a decade and beyond.
For most people, the census will be a simple 10-minute process. For others in this nation of Barack Obama, Jessica Alba, Tiger Woods, Halle Berry, Apolo Ohno and Joakim Noah , questions of mixed race and ethnicity will prompt soul-searching over how to categorize themselves among a small but growing minority in the national fabric.
The census is a montage of self-portraits that will detail the ways a nation of nearly 309 million has changed since 2000, including migration, family size and housing patterns. While that data is easier to quantify, critics say a rote list of boxes and checkmarks can’t adequately reflect all the racial and ethnic transformations.
On Chicago’s South Side, the daughter of a black father and white mother will check both. Her brother will check black. Their children will write in “mixed” or “biracial.”
A Brazilian immigrant will mark a box that says Hispanic, though she doesn’t accept the label. A woman from Jordan won’t check Asian, though she is. A man born to a Japanese mother and white father considers himself white only at census time.
Another respondent may check four racial boxes like the multi-ethnic Woods, who invented his own identifier: “cablinasian,” a mix of Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian. Obama jokingly labeled himself a “mutt,” but he won’t find that box on the form.
Some bemoan the absence of a separate “multiracial” box to check. And beyond race and ethnicity, the form won’t account for the principal factor by which many Americans identify themselves: There is no category for sexual orientation, so some gay activists plan to protest by affixing pink stickers on the envelope.
“The lesson is that, like reality, like our lives, census data are messy,” said Jorge Chapa, a University of Illinois professor who has consulted for the Census Bureau. “But the messiness does reflect the growing diversity and our complexity as a people. It’s closer to the truth.”
Over the years, the census form has changed to reflect racial realities. A historic switch for the 2000 census allowed Americans to click more than one category, meaning that the son of a Kenyan father and a white woman from Kansas can now officially be both races. About 6.8 million Americans, 2.4 percent of the population, checked more than one racial box.
A Brookings Institution survey has shown a doubling of mixed-race marriages over the last two decades. A Pew Research Center report last month documented that younger generations were far more tolerant of racial mixing than their elders.
People who mark more than one race box are not counted more than once in the overall population tally. But they would add one additional person to each racial category they choose.
Susan Graham, executive director of California-based Project RACE, which advocates for multiracial families, said a hodgepodge of individual boxes is not sufficient to describe her children. She is white and was married to an African-American, and their children have a singular identity as multiracial American.
“The term ‘multiracial,’ we believe, is important and should be on the form. Words are important,” Graham said.
Researchers have found that people’s self-identities can be fluid: Over the course of their lives, they can more strongly identify with various parts of their ancestry at different times.
Kenneth Prewitt, who directed the 2000 census, said some civil-rights groups have resisted the concept of checking more than one race out of fear that it will dilute their influence.
Prewitt said the “Hispanic” term, one used mainly in the U.S., is especially confusing. The term, which the Census Bureau first used in 1980, describes an ethnicity pertaining to Spain but can include white, black and other races. He would include one catch-all category merging Hispanics with other race identifiers, or eliminate all boxes and have everyone write in their preferred identities.