Confused about race? So is the Census

In 1990, Robert Lilligren had to choose whether to check American Indian or white on the census form. Even though he is both, the census form only allowed him to choose one. 

A member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, the Minneapolis city council member said: "Filling out only one race made me feel that I was not fully represented by my response."

Every 10 years since 1790, the census has attempted to count the exact number of people in the U.S. By doing this, the government is able to make a proper estimate on where it should allocate federal funds for everything from schools to jobs programs. The census also decides how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives. That is why it's important for the census to get the most accurate feedback as possible.

But from the beginning, the census has had trouble reporting race in America. First off, the definition of race keeps shifting. In 1850, for example, the census asked for "color" and gave three choices: white, black and mulatto, a blend of white and black. By 1880, the choices had changed to white, black, mulatto, Chinese and Indian. Today we consider Mexican a nationality and Hispanic an ethnicity, but in 1930, Mexican was considered a race.

Tom Gillapsy, Minnesota state demographer who has helped administer four census counts, has mixed feelings about collecting information on race. On one hand, collecting information about race can help show segregation and discrimination.

"One way to determine discrimination is through data," he said. For example, if "no one of (a certain) race ever gets hired for this (type of) job."

On the other hand, race isn't something encoded in the DNA; categories shift over time depending on society's ideas about race.

The census has had problems documenting race dating as far back as 1790 with the Three-Fifths compromise between Southern and Northern states reached during the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, Gillaspy noted.

The compromise provided that three-fifths of the population of slaves would be counted for enumeration purposes regarding both the distribution of taxes and the apportionment of the members of the United States House of Representatives. Southern states had plantations with slaves, who weren't allowed ot vote, but still wanted slaves counted to increase their political power in Washington. The three-fifths compromise held until slavery was abolished in 1865.

Back then, Lilligren would not have been counted at all that year because the census didn't collect information on American Indians, Gillaspy said.

Mixed-race is one of the fastest growing parts of the population, Gillaspy notes. In 2000, the census form recognized this by allowing people to check more than one racial box. Lilligren was finally able to check boxes for both of his races - white and American Indian. And he wasn't the only one.

"Lots of people checked more than one," Gillaspy said, and he predicts even more people will check more than one box in 2010.

As the U.S. population becomes more multi-racial, Gillaspy wonders if race will matter less to statisticians in the future and class as measured by income will matter more.

"Eventually it gets to the people where everybody is 'all of the above'," he said. "So who cares? By 2030, we'll forget the whole concept, it will become so complicated."

Even deciding on what terms to use for each race is challenging. This year, some people object to "Negro" being on the census. All three options of African-American, black, or negro are on this census, but "negro" is offensive to some. The Census Bureau's position is that advisory groups informed the bureau that some people identify themselves with that label, Gillapsy said.

But doing away with documenting race is also problematic. To document things like discrimination, there has to be some kind of identifying characteristic to figure out who is being affected. "If measuring race is less important," Gillaspy asked, "what do we measure?"


I never chose my race - other people did it for me

by Mariah Davis

Growing up, I didn’t realize that there was anything strange about me. I thought it was entirely normal for a person to have a one black parent and one white parent. I didn’t see any differences in color. My skin could have been covered in purple sparkles and I’d have thought nothing of it.

My parents always explained to me that my dad is black and my mother is white and they encouraged me to identify as being only black. I didn’t care at all what that meant except for the fact that black girls have a lot of trouble with their hair. My dad would braid it up and put it in twists with the adorable little hair ties with little round balls at the ends. That’s the only difference I saw between white and black people.

Since I was home-schooled, my mother, who was white, tried very hard to teach me I was black. She’d show me Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., and all sorts of other black public figures. I figured race was a part of the past and nobody cared if you were black or white now. Why did everyone make such a big deal about me being black? How come whenever I got a Barbie doll from my mother’s relatives, I always got the black girl? Could I get the blonde Barbie just once?

When I was in fourth grade, I started going to a charter school. All of the kids teased me for my wildly curly hair. I just couldn’t figure out how to keep it under control. They would call me “Bozo the Afro Clown” and would complain that my “hair was too big” when they had to sit behind me in class.

One day in sixth grade, I finally told my parents that I didn’t want to go to school anymore because the kids kept teasing me about my hair. “That’s racist,” my mother said.

I was confused. The students were teasing me about my hair, not my race. But according to my parents, my hair is a part of my heritage. It’s a part of being black.

After that, I started relaxing my hair. My hair would look straight for a couple of weeks, but after that it would be overly dry and damaged. I just wanted my hair to be as easy to manage as all my friends’ hair. I would beg my mother to buy me a new hair product every time we went shopping.

In eighth grade, I got the most amazing hair product ever created: A hot-iron hair straightener. My father was not pleased. He told me I needed to embrace my black hair, and I’d never have hair like all of the white kids I hung out with. But that didn’t keep me from trying. I became addicted to the straightener.

In the middle of ninth grade, my family moved from suburban Shoreview to St. Paul. I transferred to Arlington High School, a school with significantly fewer white kids, and more black and mixed-raced kids than I’d known before. The kids would make fun of me for things harder to change than my hair – my light skin, my suburban accent, my mostly Asian and white friends, and my punk style. They thought I acted like a white kid.

People would ask me “Are you Hispanic?” or “Are you Native American?” which I am on my father’s side, and they’d always be surprised when I said I am black. They said: “The only thing black about you Mariah is your hair. Other than that, you’re white.”

My parents had taught me all my life that I was black, but now, I was white. I felt bad, like I wasn’t representing both of my races. My friends would call me “white girl” and I’d shake it off and laugh.

I’ve learned to embrace the fact that my blood is all the colors of the rainbow. My friends and I make jokes about me being mixed. During Black History Month, I asked my friends if I’m allowed to celebrate the entire month or just half? They told me I don’t even get to celebrate that much. I have to stop at the sixth day because my skin is too light.

I joke that I’m so mixed, I’d have to date someone half-Asian and half-Hispanic to manage to date outside my race. And I should marry someone of that racial mix so my kids can be “blended like a berry blast smoothie.”

In my senior year, it seems like every day has been filled with college and scholarship applications. Almost every form I’ve filled out has asked for my race. I don’t mind it that much when I can check more than one box, but I still can’t stand it when I’m asked which race I identify most with. One time I was so annoyed with that question I wrote down “******* rainbow!”

Obviously, I didn’t submit my application with that included, but on one level, I really wanted to.

I identify with all of my races equally to the point that I don’t feel like I have a race anymore: I’m what the future will look like when we learn to cross our boundaries.

ThreeSixty Journalism is nonprofit youth journalism program based at the University of St Thomas in St. Paul. It is committed to bringing diverse voices into journalism and related professions and to using intense, personal instruction in the craft and principles of journalism to strengthen the civic literacy, writing skills and college-readiness of Minnesota teens.

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