Friday, April 16th, 2010

The Census: "What Is Person 1's Race"?

Screen shot 2010-04-16 at 12.23.04 PMWhen my German-American mother married my black-American Indian father, her dad and stepmom disowned her immediately. They would have been upset had she married an Irishman–"Those people kiss the filthy Blarney Stone," my grandfather would say–but a dark man was practically incomprehensible, like marrying an ironing board. "Race-mixing," as my grandfather called it, was an abomination.

The last thing my mom remembers her dad saying as she walked out of his modest Akron home is, "I never want you in our lives again."

Because she is a deeply kind, God-fearing woman, a couple weeks later, at Christmas, my mother went shopping for gifts for the parents who had abandoned her. She wrapped them neatly and asked her sister, her best friend, to bring them to their parents. A few days later, my mother returned home to a patio filled with the gifts she'd sent, still wrapped. Attached to the bundle was a note: "When I said never, I meant never."

When I think of my mother, I can't help but think of the head-spinning ignorance she endured to marry my dad and have me, from the familial isolation to the sidelong glances to the post-divorce date that ended when her suitor saw my picture and said, "You didn't tell me you were married to a black."

And so it went that I thought of all these things when I filled out my census form, staring at the sentence "Mark one or more boxes."

Though what certain people perceive me to be varies depending on where I am in the world–in New York, it's Puerto Rican; Miami, Cuban; Europe, Spanish–if a few dozen Americans saw me robbing a bank, I'm fairly certain most of them would describe me to the police as a "black guy." Like a parolee who returns to crime when nobody will hire him, as a teenager looking for an identity, I decided it was simplest to become what people thought I was. I made certain my "blackness" was to the fore of my personality, joining the black student's union, wearing Fubu religiously, hiding my Jawbreaker CDs from friends and wearing my Yankees hats cockeyed, a la my hero, Method Man. But by 17, I realized, as many people do, that I didn't have a sense of being, I had a costume–a dope one, complete with lots of fresh kicks and ill music, but a costume nonetheless.

It was around then that I began to wonder what my mom had thought of my Afrocentrism. Undoubtedly, the crucible in which she forged much of her adult life was one of inhuman (or perhaps very human) rejection, most of which she took because a wellspring of love for my father and me compelled her to do so. And yet there I had been, checking off the "African American" box at the doctor's office while she paid the bill and stroked my feverish head with her white hand. Remembering times like those, I'd never felt more mean and aloof. Most teenagers tell their parents they can't understand them because they're uncool or too old; I told my mom she couldn't understand me because I was only from her, not of her.

Unlike Glenn Beck et al., I like the census. I don't necessarily pore over the information it ultimately provides–though that's important, I know. Instead, I like the fact that it forces us, in the solitude of our homes, to confront questions we would probably be content to constantly ignore otherwise: Who am I (which sounds corny but really isn't)? Where do I come from? How do I want the world to know me?

I can understand why Barack Obama checked only "Black, African Am., or Negro" on his census form, leaving the "White" box blank entirely. It's something I would have done myself at one time–and I never even had to worry about political backlash, which John Judis discusses nicely at The New Republic.

Nevertheless, I couldn't do the same.

In a way, though it means he doesn't really identify with me, I'm glad Obama has a desire to be seen as the first black president of the United States. But I can't help but wonder if my grandfather, who died certain the races should never combine, wouldn't have wanted it that way.

Cord Jefferson is a writer-editor living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in National Geographic, GOOD, The Root and on MTV.

34 Comments / Post A Comment

HiredGoons (#603)

They don't even put Semitic on these things.

Great post.

kneetoe (#1,881)


Fascinating piece.

Tuna Surprise (#573)

I was disappointed there wasn't a box for: "White – but your great-Aunt Edna claims you have some Cherokee in you, which you repeat to everyone ad naseum, even though the chances it is true are slim to nil."

Why are they so interested in the flavors of Asians and Pacific Islanders?

Pop Socket (#187)

Seeing as Asians are 2/3 of the world's population, some fine-tuning seems appropriate. Hmong tribesman have little in common with middle class Korean immigrants.

HiredGoons (#603)

@Tuna Surprise: yeah, I'm pretty much white.

ljnd (#86)

Yes! Or, "your family claims they are part Blackfoot but there are no Blackfeet in Oklahoma, so it's obviously a euphemism…"

Patrick Brennan (#4,323)

By popular demand…. that's how many of the boxes were created.

I personally made up a couple of races for my family members, since I didn't care much for the question and have faced some similar issues as this story's author.

nicole (#2,443)

omg, my mother's family says this constantly!

I loved reading this. What an amazing piece.

A concur with these sentiments wholeheartedly.

barnhouse (#1,326)

YES. Thank you.

*I (not sure what my problem is)

I also loved reading this.

Also, your mom sounds tough. Hooray for tough moms.

Kakapo (#2,312)

It really is beautifully-written.

Dave Bry (#422)

Yes. Excellent.

Pleased to see Method Man was into Jawbreaker. Truly a Renaissance man.

Now that's how you tell a big story in a few paragraphs. Bravo.

Some family gossip: A female cousin of my father's adopted a black child (well, actually two, but this was when she adopted the first one), and a zealous Lutheran aunt sent letters to the rest of the family saying that they should seek to stop her from committing this "abomination," though the aunt did allow how they could at least take comfort in the fact that the child wouldn't have the family name. My grandmother, not at all religious herself and related to this aunt only by marriage, sent the aunt a letter that read in full: "How dare you call yourself a Christian?"

I've heard no family gossip about the repercussions of my parents' subsequent adoption of a black child who did get the family name.

HiredGoons (#603)

You're grandmother sounds awesome*!

*(this sounds like something my grandmother would also do)

Indeed she was. Sharp and funny.

btings (#2,012)

Fantastic post.

the teeth (#380)

If the awl was composed solely of confessional* Cord Jefferson pieces, I'd read it twice as compulsively as I do now. And that is damned compulsively. So good, for serious.

*It's a kind of dreadful, cringe-inducing word, but I can't think of a better one. Apologies, though y'all know what I mean, I hope?

garge (#736)

Sharing this post all around–thank you.

hman (#53)

As someone who has been suspected of being Ethiopian, Italian, and/or Spanish over the years, I though this was just really nice.

Skelii (#4,449)

Bravo! It hit me the wrong way when I saw the word 'Negro,' so after checking the box I cirlced 'Black' (and Native Hawaiian) and crossed out the the word "negro." They asked my race so I certainly took it upon myself to tell them who I AM and who I AM NOT.

Flaneur (#998)

Good stuff, resonates with me. My wife resulted from an affair between a white teenage woman and a married black man in his 30s; he was out of their lives entirely by the time my wife was 5, and when she was 8, her mom married a white guy. So she grew up with an all-white family on both sides, mostly without race-related problems though with occasional issues of identity. Then she married me, descendant of American slaves on one side and Caribbean ones (though more distant from slavery) on the other. I filled out our census form and checked both white and black for my wife and for our two kids–I hesitated over the latter but reasoned that their white heritage (isn't that a strangely ugly term?) is very fully a part of them.

This was really good – thank you.

Honest Engine (#1,661)

Outstanding and thoughtful.

Pandemic Endemic (#3,825)

Great story. Every time I fill out the Census form the race question trips me up, too. It leaves me with this nagging thought,"what if in 72 years someone looks at this Census form and compares it to the last one I filled out and they think I don't know who I am? Or I get hauled in for perjury?!"

And then I remember that all they *really* need to know is how many people live at my address, leave everything else blank, put 123-4567 down for the phone number and drop that sucker in the mail.

rula (#3,558)

Great piece. Really excellent.
That rag only dreams it could publish things like this,

mcbeachy (#548)

I'm working for the Census this year in Massachusetts — going door to door, canvassing. So far the most interesting race category I've encountered is a family that was Mayan. I was impressed.

Also, why do our forms look so different from your forms? Shouldn't there be some national standardization of census forms?

mmmark (#4,458)

Keep 'em coming, Cord.

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