Staring down the US census form

Guest post by Kelli Kirk

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.

Comments on Staring down the US census form

  1. I’ve always been bugged by those ethnicity questions too. I understand why they are there, but I don’t like them. In the way those forms mean I’m just white. My ancestry is all european, but I’m a dark sort of white (I take after my Swedish/Lapp grandmother) and am frequently asked if have some sort of “ethnic” or “tribal” background. Which is almost as annoying as having to check White on the census form.

    Anyway, Good job staring down that form!

    • I live in France and ethnic data simply does not exist, it was once considered by the government but the scandal was so huge they never went on with it. We have large minorities here, some are very well integrated socioeconomically, others from more recent migrations aren’t. But I have no clue how statistics will help equal opportunity.
      Racism does indeed exist, but aren’t these numbers reinforcing the irrational fear of minority domination? I find it shocking the papers would say that Blacks and Latinos will soon outnumber Whites in the US, makes me wonder why they really want these statistics…

    • We’re completely obsessed with it. I was aware of that before becoming a parent – hell, I studied it. But I think applying some of this to my children is always a new, fresh, type of irritation to me.

  2. Until we live in a perfect world where people are not discriminated against for being of a certain nationality or skin color (I’m looking at you, Arizona), we have to check these boxes to ensure our resources are fairly distributed.

    Yet, as a multi-ethnic person who is married to a white person, I can foresee this being a problem when we have children. Over the years, I opted to ID myself as “Latina” because that makes up for half of my ethnic makeup and I identify as a person of color. However, will my children identify as such? Will they really be able to call themselves “white” since they’re raised by a ‘minority’?


  3. Very funny- a friend of mine once elicited a raised eyebrow from our high school English teacher for bubbling in “Caucasian” on his form, as well as the insistence that he looks more Middle-Eastern.

    He quickly replied that since he was Armenian, which is located near the Caucasus mountains, saying he was Caucasian actually made sense.

    Long story short, those forms are messed up.

    • And similarly, I had a friend who would go on rants about how most white people are not at all descended from the original inhabitants of the Caucasus mountains.

      I’m surprised that nowadays there isn’t the option to select more than one box, or at least an “other” or “more than one background” box.

      • According to this comment, there now is!

        According to the census website:
        How Should You Answer the Question on Race?
        Select one or more of the categories listed on the Census 2000 questionnaire. If you select American Indian or Alaska Native, use the write-in area to report your enrolled or principal tribe. If you select Other Asian, Other Pacific Islander, or Some Other Race, use the write-in area to specify your race.

    • YES! I am half-Iranian, half-Northern European and Caucasian is the accurate description given the choices, I guess – but I am absolutely brown, not white.

      This always flustered me when I was young – I remember my parents telling me to put caucasian down on a form (now it often lists Middle Eastern in the descriptor for the choice, maybe it always did) and me being confused – did they mean I should say I was white because we were middle class, like all the white kids I knew? Which is so disturbing. I wondered, did that mean I was more white than I was Iranian? Not to mention that there didn’t seem to be a choice that said Iranian if it wasn’t Caucasian and did that mean I was sort of not anything?

      Race is so confusing as a child. And as an adult!

  4. While I agree that the forms and the “pick one” boxes can never encompass the being of a adult, child or person, I do understand why they ask people to pick just one. As someone who has worked with very large data sets, trying to parse multiple option questions becomes very difficult when you are working on putting together statistically defensible information.

    In the case of the census, that data is used for a wide rage of government projects, and has to be easily searchable by multiple agencies. In addition, while it is very sad, the race data is still important when looking at correlations between race and socioeconomic data.

    In order to solve problems like lingering racism, schisms in economic classes, and under achieving schools, we have to first be able to quantify the problem. At this time the way we do that is by asking people to check a box.

    To be clear, my own family is mixed race, and I think it’s important for our society to move past skin color. However, I do understand the forms, and I can’t get too worked up about the government trying to collect data that will help figure out solutions to these tough problems.

  5. I hate filling those things out. I’m an American born Cuban, but to just say latino/hispanic is a cop out since at first glance I look mixed black/white. There is no box for Cuban of african decent (we can trace our ancestry on my mother’s side to 4 different European countries and Angola and Ivory coast).

    We’re having a real hard time with the census at my house too, since we aren’t married, my bf is a white Argentinian, both with differing religious views, i don’t want to identify as straight either…. :sigh:

  6. Thank you for writing about this issue. However, it’s important for everyone to know this:
    1) for the 2 “race questions” on the form (questions #8 and #9) YOU CAN CHECK AS MANY BOXES AS YOU WANT.
    2) choose the boxes that YOU wish to identify as. There are separate “race/ethnicity” boxes for each member of your family. So you can mark “white” (or more, if you choose), your partner can mark “black” (or more, if he or she chooses), and you can mark multiple boxes for your children.

    This is stated clearly on the form; it first became policy 10 years ago, for the last census.

    I am multiracial myself (black, white, filipina); I checked 3 boxes. My husband, who is Mexican, chose to mark “Other” for question #9 (the famous race question) and wrote in “Latino/Mestizo” in the space provided. If you’re Latina, and you don’t identify as “white”, don’t check that box. Check “Other” and write in “Latina”, “Mestiza”, Mexicana”, or whatever you wish.

    I work for the Census, and I truly believe this is important. Filling it out – however you want, using whatever boxes you choose – better reflects our diversity as a nation, provides $400 billion in annual funds for our communities, and determines political representation (namely, allocation of the 435 Congressional House seats. States with larger increases in population gain more political representation).

    Census Takers are now visiting households who haven’t completed their forms. For more information:
    * PHONE: 1-866-872-6868
    * ONLINE:
    * How to fill out the form:

    Again, I’m glad you wrote about this issue, but please edit your article to note that marking multiple race boxes IS possible, and actually pretty common.

    • For clarification – I was not indicating the US census form allowed only “one box” but rather the public school form (which does allow more than one, but only the second is not officially counted). In fact, I clearly stated I was resolved to “check two” – with my nose held.

      I want to be clear: I did not advocate anyone not fill out her census form.

      My point is that race is a social and political construct and this form sets out to capture something constructed by others which may have little to do with how a person perceives herself. This is only one of umpteen forms I am required to fill out, endless forms, with the same box – most of them asking for one only.

      My own identity for myself or my children doesn’t fit the “box”(or boxes!). The “other” category doesn’t work for me. It pisses me off just to think about it.

      Identity is much more complicated than boxes on a form. My children are not “other” and in fact they do not identify as “half” this and “half” that, or “3 quarters” this and “1 quarter” that. For my part – the form is broken and the process remains about as broken as our relationship to “race” historically. That is my point.

      • Kelli, I agree with you that race is a socio-political construct, and – as I mentioned before – I’m multiracial myself; I’ve been marking off “Other” boxes all my life.

        My intent in writing to you was simply to raise awareness about the 2010 Census. I believe the census form can, and should, be edited and improved, and I think we can all agree that our identity doesn’t fit into boxes. However, the number of Americans who check the “Other” boxes, or multiple race boxes, keeps rising and rising; filling out the census form has a lot at stake, and being counted as a member of multiracial America is one of those.

        I recommend this article to everyone (from last month’s Chicago Tribune): “Census snapshots: An evolving portrait. Multiracial, gay and immigrant Americans question whether 2010 form captures country’s fast-changing makeup” –

        There are 5 pages – it’s worth reading all of it!

        • Yvonne, thank you for your comment, I also work for the Census and was going to say something along those lines. Upon first read, it came across as though checking two boxes was subversive, or “not the way it’s supposed to be done”, especially in conjunction with the allusions to “check one box”. I now understand these were aimed at the school forms, but seemed, on first read, to be aimed at the Census form as well.

          As a backstory, I live in Texas, and I’m surrounded by people who think the Census is Big Brother come to git’em,so I might just be overly committed to wanting everyone to understand the Census is really not that bad, it’s just a form lookin’ for some fillin’ out. And then it gives us money, huzzah! 🙂

          As always on this site, this was an interesting and well written post. I really love how so many different perspectives and opinions, and little vignettes of lives are shared on here.

  7. I hate forms that require ethnicity. I always check two even if I’m only supposed to use one. Then one told me I couldn’t be both caucasian and non-latina hispanic…hm, that’s odd, cause I am.

  8. This has been on my mind all day–the Portland City Council heard a report today from the Communities of Color Coalition, which presented a report on the ways minorities are undercounted in our county for exactly the reasons you mention in this article: only being supposed to check one box when reality is nowhere near that. Undercounting not only leads to underfunding (federal and state funds are portioned out based on census counts) but to underrepresentation in city employment, public assistance, and… well, just about everything. Being “colorblind” would work if we lived in a world with no history of systemic racism. But we don’t, and so ignoring race means defaulting to a white-centric system.

    The good news is that organizations like Communities of Color Coalition exist, and are doing good research, and are presenting to city councils, which are hearing them with a minimum of defensiveness. The census and other forms of population research are changing, although slowly. And people speaking their truths are what’s making it happen–thanks for publishing this article.

    • “Being “colorblind” would work if we lived in a world with no history of systemic racism. But we don’t, and so ignoring race means defaulting to a white-centric system.”

      I get this. I completely agree. There is no colorblind – – I get that. But for my situation – the forms don’t work. I could check black and white but if I asked my daughter, she’d say “Mixed ethnicity” and my guess is she’d want to leave it there.

      I could put “black” (which leaves me constantly questioning / defending her ethnicity) or “just white” which saddens and depresses me, and denies her. ?? My only point is: These boxes don’t work for me. I do understand the importance though – I get that piece.

      • I definitely hear you, and agree that forcing people to define themselves in boxes is inaccurate at best and denies identity at worst. I’m sorry if I came across as saying you should do something different–I was trying to subtly respond to comments like Anne’s, who wondered how statistics would help equal opportunity. I guess I was a little too subtle. 😉

  9. Basically the entire state of Hawaii has issues with this form- everyone has such a mixed heritage its all a minefield to check boxes!

    I never fill out the “race” portions, they have always bothered me. I understand the idea of spending money in appropriate places, but I think its more important to do it by income than by skin color – i.e. shouldn’t people who can not afford certain things (like art programs) be funded in their area rather than if they are a minority or not?

    My census form is also staring at me from the counter, waiting for me to decide what boxes I am going to check. So thank you for posting this article so others can see a different side to the race issue.

    • When I was studying ethnic history at the University of Washington we learned that data regarding “race” relations from Hawaii was often omitted because it skewed the studies – because people treat ethnicity so different in Hawaii. Everyone is mixed ethnicity! Sounds pretty refreshing to me.

  10. I always check “other” and then write “human race.” I know, I know, aren’t I so clever, neenerneenerNEENER. But in a childish way it makes me feel better about race politics, especially since I’m not easily classifiable 🙂

    And for the census I answered how many people live in our household, and that’s it (read the constitution if you want to know what it’s supposed to be for). Everything else is just a method The Man has cooked up for buying votes, ala robbing Peter to pay Paul.

  11. Thank you for sharing. I often have trouble telling ethnicities apart. I like that the lines are so blurred, maybe that’s the cure to racism. I’m white/anglo-saxon, but have very full lips, so when I get a tan and have my hair dark I’ve had people think I’m something exotic. I don’t identify with race, instead I identify with my family traditions and my own individuality.

  12. Whenever I’m asked about my “race”, I opt not to answer. Genetically speaking, race doesn’t exist, and I don’t feel compelled to identify myself by it.

    You’re only required to tell the US Census how many people are living in your house. My SO & I checked “2” and returned the form. Maybe next time I’ll check “other” for my race and fill in “human”.

  13. That’s crazy that your school makes such a big deal of more than one race and makes it more difficult for those are are mixed race to fill out the forms. I live in Southern Georgia (though am originally from California) and our school forms have a box for *mixed race. But no line so you have to spell out for them WHAT mixed race you are (which in our case would be white/black/native american)

  14. i had a problem filling this out as well i think it was particularly insulting to latinos who are almost always of mixed ancestry , but when it comes down to school forms i let my kids pick , they always choose their father’s NA heritage and that is fine with me.

  15. It’s puzzling to me that you’re all experiencing this sort of issue, especially on the Census form. I’m currently working for the Census as an Ennumerator and the question reads “check all that apply” for the ethnic groups.

    Are the forms different depending on your state?

    • This “issue” you mention confronts me constantly since my children were born. The Census form is only the latest. Yes I agree, having multiple boxes is better than the “please check one” I’m always presented with. Still, a quick read through the comments above clearly indicates that boxes don’t correspond with self identification for many people. Identity is complicated and nuanced. The census form (and umpteen other forms) require us to boil a person down to a box. My kids do not fit neatly into one box, or two, or three. And I feel deep ambivalence about “other” especially as it relates to labeling my children.

  16. I know I’ll probably get a lashing for this but I think some people are putting too much thinking into these forms.

    Yes, not everyone can be defined by one or two boxes on these government forms. I would argue that no one in the US save a small handful can trace their ancestry back to just one place on this planet. But with statistics, you can’t really have a long form answer to things like this and have it be of any use to the people using these statistics. I had to work with a lot of Census data back in my college days and I can’t even imagine the headache projects would have been if instead of quick numbers we had to read through individual sentences on every single American.

    And really, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter what boxes you check. It isn’t going to fundamentally change how you view yourself or your children. If you wanted to, you could check whatever you please regardless of whether it’s “true” and none would be the wiser.

    Rather than viewing these forms as an assault on identity, just view them as yet another annoying piece of bureaucracy we have to deal with like needing three pieces of ID at the DMV or needing your parents’ tax information for the FAFSA even though you’re 45.

    • There clearly should be! I’m genuinely surprised that there isn’t.

      In the UK, the forms always go in sections (eg the “White” section is divided into “White British”, “White Irish”, “White Other”, etc), and one of the sections is always “Mixed Race”, with a ton of options within that.

      I heard somewhere that “mixed-race” is nearly the second-biggest group in Britain after “white British”, so it’s good that it’s represented.

      And I second the comment about your beautiful kids too. 🙂

  17. Ugh. I’m glad there was an article about this. No, I don’t have kids, and no, I’m not a mix of anything but the super-whites of Europe, all blue eyes and blond hair and milky skin.
    But I’m STILL really annoyed that every test, every job application, and every other formal what-not, I have to check an ethnicity. Who the hell cares?
    And my even bigger pet peeves? When the form still says race (I always want to jot down “race doesn’t exist!!!”) or you’re first asked if you’re hispanic. Like it goes “are you hispanic?” well, no. “Check your ethnicity” and next to white is says “Not hispanic”.
    Jesus, way to make it glaringly obvious who you’re on the lookout for, government. Makes me wonder what would have happened if I had married into that lovely Mexican family. Could I be hispanic by proxy?

  18. I know this is an old post but this one spoke to me as its such an old and current issue, of race and ethnicity. as was said before race isn’t real but ethnicity certainly is. I’ve always been a proud Irish american. My family has always identified as such we have tons of family in Dublin all kids of catholic saint named kids, but my grandma is half swedish (she just started admiting this a few years ago). My grandpa on the other side called himself black-irish (he was dark)and my grandma on the other side as native american (blue eyed blonde gotta love those Cherokees). And recently we just found out that the reason my grandpa called himself black-irish was it was common practice in his time and in Arkansas that if your were native american and white you identified as black-irish. I take after the swedish/irish side of my family but my skin is darker, so depending on my hair color (naturally blonde) I’ve been mistaken from everything from russian to latina to half black. I think people in general are harmlessly curious about ethnic orgins (I live in Miami it seems everyone is a little bit of something or they are Cuban)but I agree the whole census thing has always thrown me off, I think that the funding should be decided according to need to not to skin color. White Black or Mocha poor is poor take the race boxes off the census, we are rainbows not just one color, oh and anyone ever consider those that are adopted?

  19. I’m an odd mix myself— American Indian, Lithuanian Jew, German and Irish. I got blessed with the pale skin while the majority of my siblings are darker skinned and tan like crazy. My kids are all of this, plus Scottish. There should be a box that says :Unique Blend.
    My husband will write “human”:)

  20. I cannot believe that you do not have boxes to signify mixed race. I come from a country which was so lacking in diversity that my mother didn’t even see a black person until she was in her 20s and our forms have tons of options.

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