The United States Census form sits on my kitchen counter in its crisp, white envelope, mocking me each night. It demands not only that I count my family members, but also that I should make each of us fit into a narrow definition of “ethnicity.”
The last time I completed the US Census I was mid-pregnancy with my first child and obsessed with more urgent, existential issues of identity. Forms and “Please Check One” requirements were not even an abstract consideration for me at that point.
Tonight I resolve to open that envelope and, like the fearless bad-ass I am, I’m going to stare that form down and fill it out.
In my two children I see faces that resemble the diversity in their family of birth. They are black, they are white, they are working class, English, French, Irish, intellectual, American West Coast, pioneer, military, hippie, radical, political, urban, rural, salt-of-the-Earth, Washingtonian. The school they attend is plopped smack in the vibrant heart of the most diverse zip code in the country: Seattle’s Rainier Valley. Like their school, they are a breathtaking and humbling mish-mash.
Last week I read an article about people of mixed ethnicity choosing “just black”. Mainstream media seems fairly obsessed with this idea of “just black”. Headlines read “President Obama: HE’S BLACK” after he publicly completed his census form. As a white working class girl who spent my youth studying African American history, I recognize that we have come a long way. At the same time, we haven’t. Perversely it strikes me that if my children were phenotypically darker skinned, this concept would be easier for me and yet life possibly much harder for them.
Perhaps that US census form sits unopened on my counter because I am tinged with irritation from my most recent “Please Check One” experience. I enrolled my son in Seattle Public Schools Kindergarten. The “Please Check One” form remains unchanged since my daughter entered school five years ago.
The public school form reads:
Ethnic Code: The ethnic code listed in BOX 1 will be used by Seattle Public Schools primarily to meet various Federal, State and District requirements. Select a code from the list provided that it describes the student’s ethnicity and enter it in BOX 1. If you choose not to respond to this item, please indicate by signing here. If the ethnic code is left blank, Federal reporting regulations require us to assign a code for the student. If you wish to enter a second ethnic code for this student, select the appropriate code and enter in Box 2.
The problem with all of these required forms is obvious: my kids aren’t one box. My daughter most certainly looks white. When I mention she is white AND black, they stare at me blankly. Maybe that means I should have listed “WH” for her on the public school form, and “BL” second. My son is a sweet, light, brown. Perhaps I should write “BL” first for him and “WH” second.
I suppose there could be a partial box–“three-quarters white” or “one-quarter black.” If it were allowable, I could color small boxes-in-the-box so that we could portion out my children appropriately. If my son were a coconut-cream pie instead of a boy, I could divvy him into a box.
Whatever I select, I have been told that only the first box will be counted for federal, state and district requirements. If I select “WH” then my kids will be “just white”, ignoring any other boxes I might check, or any explanations that I might scribble in the margins.
Maybe I should just surrender and list WH for both of them.
Perhaps I should just quietly “stick it to the man” and list BL for both of them.
That census form is still lying on my kitchen counter. Today, I resolve to go directly home and “Please Check Two”: White and Black. Neither really fit for me and probably not for them.
I wish that all of us had more options.