how will you answer the “race” question on the u.s. census?

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Multi-racial family

The U.S. census is coming up—the buzz is all over the media. Every time I turn on the TV I’m bombarded with commercials about the census being a “snapshot of America” and how important it is that I fill mine out.

On the radio this morning, I heard about a growing movement to check “Other” in the race category and write in “American”. Race shouldn’t matter, they say. The question itself is racist! Let the government know what you think by writing in “American”.

This is something that I would have agreed with without much thought 5 years ago. I am white, and I was raised by my mother who tried to teach me to not judge others on their appearance, to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and always to try put myself in another person’s shoes. Race wasn’t mentioned much in my family growing up; it was just an unspoken fact that everyone was accepted and equal. My sister’s best friend in school was black and my best friend for most of my life is Puerto Rican, and we never really noticed or cared. For most of my life, I thought that was the ideal way to raise a child. I considered myself “color-blind” and thought the world would soon be “post-racial” if it wasn’t already.

In the past couple of years, I’ve started educating myself about racism. From what I’ve learned, my paradigm has shifted completely. When I have kids, I want to teach them, like my mother did, to not judge others on appearance. But I also want to teach them about racism today. About subtle internalized racism, and about institutionalized racism. I don’t want my kids to be color-blind. I want them to see and appreciate all colors. I want them to know the history of the struggles of all people of color. I want them to be aware of their own privilege, to refuse to take advantage of it when they can, and to educate others about it.

Back to the census… It seems to me that the suggestion of filling in “American” for race is a very white suggestion. An attempt to be color-blind. It smacks of white privilege—of denial that racism still exists today. “Why ask for my race?” they say. “Race shouldn’t matter!” Try telling that to your black or Hispanic neighbor or coworker (if you haven’t surrounded yourself by whites). Go ahead. Walk up to them and say, “Your race doesn’t matter.” You are telling them that their identity doesn’t matter. That their struggles don’t matter. That their race doesn’t make any difference when they are applying for a job or an apartment.

Every person I found online arguing that you shouldn’t fill out your race on the census, or fill it out with “American”, is white. Do you think that’s a coincidence?

In the past, the information provided in the census has been used several times for evil purposes. In the 1940s, the names and addresses of Japanese-Americans were obtained from the census in order to displace them into concentration camps. When the census began, race was used to count black slaves as 3/5 of a person. These uses were truly evil. But (optimist that I am) I believe they are the exception. Your information is supposed to be kept confidential, and I believe it usually is.

Information is not inherently good or evil. Information is knowledge, it is power, and it can lead to wisdom and social change. The information compiled by the census tells us that the minority population is growing. It tells us that the percentage of multiracial Americans is growing. It tells us that more than one in four children under the age of 6 are being raised by at least one foreign-born parent.

When I receive my census form in the mail next week, I’m going to fill out my race. Because I’m not colorblind, and neither is the world. The U.S. is not post-racial yet, but the information provided by the census can help us get there.



  1. k wells said,

    March 17, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    I will not answer the race question on the census form. Yes, clearly race matters in this country – in sports, entertainment, culture, etc. However, if there is one entity which should be color-blind, it is the federal government. We should all be equal under the law and as long as the federal government chooses to classify, categorize, and divide individuals by race, then there is no hope of a post-racial nation.

  2. April 21, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    I think as a country, we need to re-examine what race means. My daughters are biracial (half caucasion and half African-American) but based solely on appearances, they would most likely be described as caucasion. Ethnicity is someting ithat is deeper than the skin and goes to heritage. This is more difficult to measure and judge on the basis of appearances, but in our multicultural society it allows for the meaning of ancestry to take on perhpas a more accurate definition.
    These are important questions and we should spend some time in our society grappling with them.

  3. D said,

    December 29, 2010 at 10:12 am

    I have to disagree with most of this.

    Your race DOES NOT matter. Yes, we should ACKNOWLEDGE race, understand that both it and racism still exist, but we should always treat everyone as individuals. We should understand that individuals, refardless of arbitrary grouping, cannot be equal in skill/demeanor but that we should all be treated with dignity and respect as INDIVIDUALS if we deserve it.

    And, to be honest, when you tell a minority that “your race does not matter”,
    I would think that they would be relieved. I mean, I would be. Imagine that – the White person you’re talking to just sees you as a person.

    Also, the way your mother raised you is ideal. If all Whites were raised like you, racism would be nearly non-existent.

    I’m Hispanic by the way. I’ve lived in South Central Los Angeles for all my life. I’ve seen how racism works even in a non-White, non-subtle context.

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