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The Census Bureau Is Finally Thinking Outside the Box

Photograph by Twenty20

When I was a little girl and my family and I had migrated to the U.S., I remember hearing my parents complain about having no choice but to check off the box that read "black, negro or African-American."

The word negro was just downright offensive. And it may seem a bit odd to others that we had an issue with the term "African-American" because looking at my black family, you’d think that description was spot on. But even though we are black, we didn’t consider ourselves African Americans, and we felt that the description alienated our Jamaican heritage.

Now after all these years the Census Bureau says it recognizes that the world is becoming more diverse and it's working on making a change to the forms. But throughout the survey's history, it’s continually evident that there has been an underlying problem with how people are being categorized.

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The Bureau has been keeping track of race and ethnicity since 1790. The first census placed people into three racial categories that included free white females and males, all other free persons and slaves.

Changes regarding race and ethnicity were made later on to reflect immigration. For example, Chinese became a category in the 1860 survey in California.

Hindu was added in 1920, 1930 and 1940, and later removed. This was the only time a religion has appeared as an option in the race and ethnicity question. By 2000 people were allowed to choose more than one race to describe themselves because of the growing diversity in our country.

The notion of race being a box you simply check off is disappearing.

The Dallas Morning News recently did a piece on the change within their community, which included a video people of different backgrounds speaking about their race and ethnicity.

I’m also noticing more multiracial families in our Long Island community as well. Despite the change, I often wondered if our children will have a problem fitting in because multiracial families are still the minority in our neighborhood.

I’m also concerned about society boxing them into a category they may not belong. The new census report implies that our biracial kids will have an easier time filling out forms—a more accurate representation of what they identify with and belong to—and that makes me feel hopeful. I never want our children to deal with the same problem that my parents and I had.

What's painfully obvious is that the U.S. is becoming more diverse, but I feel it's been that way for many years. It's just taken society a while to catch up, to understand that there are complex ways of identifying. For instance, if you’re half white like my kids, people would consider them black because of the “one drop rule.” But other biracial or multiracial kids might not identify as black. Actually, millions of Americans changed their racial or ethnic identity from the 2000 census to the 2010 census forms.

People like me founded the system, and we don’t imagine that there could be a complication because it’s outside the realm of experience.

According to Carolyn Liebler, the notion of race being a box you simply check off is disappearing. The sociology professor has worked extensively with census data at the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota population center.

“I’m a white person, and all of my ancestors are white, from northwest Europe,” she told The Dallas Morning News. “People like me founded the system, and we don’t imagine that there could be a complication because it’s outside the realm of experience.”

She went on to say that having a more complicated view is better because the world is more complicated and that “what we’re trying to do is understand the world.”

“The Census Bureau is continually researching methods to improve our data on race and ethnicity so that we can provide our country with important information that reflects our growing racial and ethnic diversity and the complexity of our myriad of American experiences,” a Census Bureau official said in a statement.

The Bureau has hopes to gain a better understanding with their 2020 survey. Officials believe that it will lead to a more accurate description of people's ethnicities instead of just "some other race," the language used even in the most recent 2010 survey.

This new survey is well overdue and I’m hoping colleges and other organizations follow suit. Forms aren’t exactly “black and white.” We’ve had to fill out medical forms and choose the the closest match, which is sometimes “other.” But most times we leave it blank.

With an increasingly mixed world, I also wonder how college applications will alter the racial and ethnic categories. My niece, who is in her second year of college, said that when she filled out her college application she selected hispanic. There wasn’t an option for her Jamaican and Puerto Rican heritage.

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It will be interesting to see how the survey plays out. If it were up to me, I’d skip the categories all together and let people fill in the race and ethnicity manually. It may seem like more work on the back end, but we live in a very diverse world. I think people should fill out the forms according to how they see themselves, and not allow society to place them in a category in which they don’t necessarily belong.

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