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"Race" Is (still) For Suckers --Especially the Census's Version
biblecookiesmilk
hoodcity
Came home from work today to see this taped to my mailbox:



I suppose it's because on the 2010 Census I checked "Some Other Race" to the question which asked about 'race,' and wrote in "American" in the space provided:




I've been through this before with the Census, exactly 10 years ago, when similar responses on my 2000 Census (long) form prompted a visit from one of their agents:



I invited her in to my apartment, and spent about 20 minutes explaining to her my position, while she dutifully took notes on her laptop.

There's no such thing as "race," of course, in the sense that most people use the term. There's phenotypes (and that's what I'm referring to when I colloquially use the term 'race' in general conversation), but the idea that checkbox type "race" exists is probably the biggest, mass-delusional hoodwink of the last 400 years. Here's Exhibit A:



No one calls Tiger Woods the world's greatest Asian-American golfer, do they?

While race doesn't exist, ethnicity does, kind of, and even by the terms of the people who believe in race, that's what the 2010 Census is really trying to suss out (though poorly). So it's a shame that the current Census doesn't provide a space for people who, quite precisely, deem "American" to be their ethnicity/culture, regardless of their skin color or ancestors' place of birth. A head count of the people who self-identify in that sense --or any alternative sense based on making a conscious choice as to how you wish to interact with the world, rather than accepting a fake, arbitrary role that's been picked for you --is infinitely more useful than the meaningless checkboxes that were provided this year. Hopefully, that'll change by 2020. In the meantime, I'm writing in 'American' every chance I get.

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I always write "Euro-American"

So there is this girl who writes "Hispanic" on all her forms.
"Why? You're white."
"I'm Puerto Rican."
"They speak Spanish there?"
"Of course. You know that."
"Where is Spain located?"
"What?"
"Spain is in Europe, is it not?"
"So?"
"You're ancestors are European. That makes you white."

She gave me a dirty look.

You are a human being, are you not? Your ancestors came from Africa. That makes you black. So why are you writing "Euro-American"?

Well if they really wanted a "race" then, yes, I would put homo sapien. But since they want a phenotype, and because I like to mock the government's own nomenclature, I go with Euro-American (which fits in well with Afro-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, Native American, etc).

Which still fails to explain why you do not say "Afro-American," or why you mock someone for identifying as Hispanic and attempt to base your criticism on a completely fungible, non-genetic phenomenon such as language.

You are too busy laughing to see your own (very rude) joke.

To the much more sane and thoughtful original points here: I don't see how "American" is more authentic in this context than any other categorization. Within a highly diverse nation of 300 million people, it has little inherent meaning. It is also controversial, as "American" can include residents of all of the highly diverse cultures of the Americas. Are Canadians "American"? Are Mexicans? Are Chileans? Or do are they "lesser"--introducing the whole hierarchal problem once again? I can see how such a category mocks or parallels the arbitrary aspects of race/ethnicity. However, it also can merely be an attempt to dance around and obfuscate cultural reality. It could easily become the same old wish for "otherness" to disappear repackaged in the guise of "colorblind" progressivism. Furthermore, in a time of the decline of the nation-state and the fracturing of societies into ethnocultural bastions, I would suggest that such categorization is increasingly at odds with reality.

Now, "Midwestern punk"--that's much harder to quibble over.

I don't know that nephilimnexus's comment to the girl of Puerto Rican descent/"Hispanic" phenotype was rude at all, and one certainly shouldn't assume that it was meant to be by him, or taken that way by her. For all anyone reading this knows, based on what's here, her 'dirty look' may have been given the same way one gives the gas-face by deploying a middle finger and/or a raised eyebrow to a friend over lunch, in response to a comment that might be offensive to most, but totally appropriate and taken in the right (light) spirit when used in conversation between folks who know each other and are OK with that. Like how, as happened in the small, inebriated hours a few weeks ago, someone asked my friend of Flipino descent if she's gonna be frying up some dog later, who responded by passing it around the circle and asking me if I don't have an outsourced tech support call to take, and so on and so on, until everyone's had their share. Kinda like what went down here: http://hoodcity.livejournal.com/74945.html. A lot of people are getting over the idea of race, and along with it, the burden of being offended over slights to imaginary and/or arbitrarily-assigned (by, let's not forget: people with a selfish, vested interest in doing the assigning), divisive classifications.

I don't see how "American" is more authentic in this context than any other categorization. Within a highly diverse nation of 300 million people, it has little inherent meaning.

Well, compared to the official choices given on the Census, identifying as "American" is approximately 400% more authentic and inherently meaningful than identifying as "Asian Indian" (a highly diverse diaspora originating in a arbitrarily-demarcated nation-state of roughly 1.2 billion people) or "Chinese" (1.3 billion and counting). I'm not hung up on the name --call this ethnicity "USA-ian" if it offends less Mexicans, Canadians and/or Chileans. For present purposes though, "American" rolls off the tongue better, and is convenient for discussion of the concept.

My point is this: The arbitrary (see lazyman's excellent points, below) choices given on the Census are (1) meaningless, useless and artificial; (2) dangerously divisive; (3) incomplete. With regard to the first, the whole point of the decennial head count is to get a picture of the population, and with respect to Question No. 9, get a sense of how the population self-identifies, and use that understanding in outreach to various subpopulations, etc. So far, so good. But, the choices given here are so vague as to be meaningless. "Asian Indian" or "Chinese," as either ethnicities or as races, is absurd. I guarantee that no one in India thinks of his or her race as "Asian Indian." There's a great deal of phenotype variation in that country (probably more than in any other except this one, maybe Brazil), and when its inhabitants think of the "races" which are found within the country, in the sense that we do, they think of Bengalis, Punjabis, Kashmiris, Biharis, Tamils, etc., all of whom look very different (and speak different languages, eat different foods, etc.). Any Indian walking down a street in India can look at someone else and instantly knows what their "race" is based on the phenotype they present. But the U.S. Census lumps them all together as simply the race of "Asian Indian." That's laughably, knee-slappingly absurd to any intelligent person with a sense of humor, and offensive, ignorant and insensitive to any intelligent person without one. Same with considering all the people of Chinese extraction in America to be a race, or even worse, an ethnicity. China is a huge country, with distinct groups like the Han, Zhuang, Uygur, Hui, etc., all of whom get their own checkboxes on the analogous Chinese forms --but in American, to the Census, they're all just slant-eyed chinks Chinese. There's something to be offended about: That "they all look the same to me" is official U.S. government policy. Fuck that.

Edited at 2010-05-16 07:00 pm (UTC)

[ahh, lj cut off the rest of the response, which was supposed to be this]:

So the Census effort in Question 9 isn't about "race" (which doesn't even exist); and although it tries to be without coming out and saying it, it doesn't even do a good of counting ethnicity. It's really about --let's face it, looks. The question is really asking you this: "If an average uncultured idiot saw you walking down the street, what would they classify you as being?" Like I said: meaningless, useless, artificial and divisive.

And also, incomplete. What is an ethnicity? It's group that, to a large degree, has much in the way of a commonly shared culture, set of values and aspirations, language, cuisine, etc. By that definition, "American" is as valid an identifier as calling someone Chinese, Indian, Irish, Italian or Mexican. I'm not saying those other identities are invalid --if someone sees himself as being culturally, ethnically or racially Chinese or Hispanic or whatever, let them check that box. But for those that see themselves as and identify solely as being American --unhyphenated and perhaps even without other cultural antecedent --let them have the same choice. It's as accurate a grouping as any of the official choices actually. The American Ethnicity, by definition, is informed and influenced by all the other cultures which have uniquely combined and come together to form this one. Saying that you consider yourself an American --and not an Irish-American or an Iranian-American or an African-American or what have you --is a statement worth considering.

And more importantly, with respect to addressing nearly every violent conflict on the planet today, identities you can choose are far preferable to ones you're born into --especially irrevocable ones.


Which title would best describe this chap: Afro-Anglican or Englishman?

I'd go with the latter, but the USA in general would prefer the former.


i personally would just opt for Good-looking ;)

A few years ago I saw a fascinating collection of 18th century paintings regarding "race" from colonial South America. They depicted all the various combinations of the principal ancestries in the region: Spanish, African, and indigenous. The paintings were created as tutorial for racial class system wherein one's ancestry and place of birth fixed people into one rung on the social ladder. The ordering was what you'd expect -- the more European you were, the higher your class. What struck me was the extensive investment the society had in the racial categorization, not just legal distinctions, but different words for each permutation of mixing, even different categories if you were born in Spain or in the Americas (to the same parents). Yet, despite the extensive social structuring by race, it was also apparent that "race mixing" was common enough that government felt compelled to draw up all these categories. So at least some people were still getting it on with whomever, regardless of skin tone.

Very interesting, that Casta stuff is. And highlights how fleeting and arbitrary definitions of race can be. Few of those categories would be considered a "race" anywhere today. Reminds me of a neighborhood demographic survey I saw in a sociology book about Chicago from the early 20th Century. It listed one race as "white," as opposed to other "races" like "Negro," "Irish," "Italian," "Lithuanian," and "Assyrian." Formerly huge distinctions are forgotten as phenotype and/or culture merge. I'm pretty certain that we won't have racial checkboxes in this country in 100 years. Though I'm sure we'll have a host of ethnic/ideological/cyborg/whatver ones to take their place.

Writing the comment, I initially had the same reaction -- relief that we aren't so particular these days as in colonial South America. But then I looked back up at your census form and saw fourteen specific checkboxes for "race", so maybe we do still micro-categorize race.

Curiously though, much of the breakdown is for what I'd call Pacific Island heritage or Asian heritage. All the variation in "White" has been collapsed, as with "Black". Yet one would be hard pressed to define a "racial" difference between Samoans and Fijians that you couldn't find between Ethiopians and Senegalese, or Sicilians and Norwegians.

Indeed, 100 years ago, 12 of those modern checkboxes would probably be wrapped up in something like "Oriental"; the category "White" would be broken up into "Italian", "Irish", "Slavic", etc., as in the book you had, and "Black" would probably be distinct from "Mulatto". So there's an interesting fluidity in how racial categories get carved up or collapsed over time. I'd like to think the reason American society stopped making racial categories for Italians and Irish, Haitians and Moroccans is for some noble reason like common cause in WWII, or a fun reason like there was enough sex all around to make categories meaningless. However, I kind of suspect it was actually that segregation and discrimination laws didn't allow for a 'gray' area and pushed American society toward a black/white dichotomy -- you have to be one or the other (as you said, Tiger Woods is a great Asian golfer. Also note Barack Obama is our first Hawaiian Islander president.)

It may also be that a transplanted culture needs a several generations for the kids to stop caring about 'the old country'. This theory might explain why some groups that have only been immigrating to the US in large numbers for two or three generations, e.g. Southeast Asians, still maintain subcategories (Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, etc.). I would speculate that in another two generations, say around 2050, the detailed Asian subcategories will largely be gone. It would be exciting if by then the new set of highly subdivided categories is "nanobot augmented", "cyborg implants", "full android", etc.

About halfway down this page from the US Census there's a history of how the "race" question has changed over the years.

Last year I had to return a Massachusetts jury form that asked my race and gave me about six options and no "Other," so I left that section blank. I got a call about a week later from a court functionary who told me that it was a civil and criminal violation to provide inaccurate or incomplete information, to which I replied that race was a box other people might like, but it wasn't a box I'd ever put myself in.

Anyway, the po-po never showed up at my door, so I figure they either decided not to press charges or the woman I was talking to figured out from my voice that I was what she'd call "white."

My problem with checkbox-style race is that there might be something potentially valuable that they're trying to ascertain. I would have no problem checking "no" in response to a question about my status as a member of a recognized ethnic minority, or answering a question that specifically asked about my ethnic heritage and allowed me to provide a meaningful answer.

But "white" isn't in any meaningful sense a useful category. If it means anything at all, it means "of European, north-African, or west-Asian heritage," but that's a completely useless term in almost any context (cultural, epidemiological, or public policy) in which there's any valid reason to be asking about anyone's . If you're going to ask me to check off what amounts to an "other" box, at least have the decency to label it "other." And if you can't do that, at least don't toss on a label derived from taxonomies that have been widely recognized as invalid for more than half a century, and that stinks of entrenched racism-- as far as I'm concerned, that's about as inoffensive as asking someone who identifies as Asian to check off a "Mongoloid" box.

If "'white' isn't any meaningful sense a useful category," then how could a court worker have "figured out from voice that I was what she'd call 'white'"?

Visit any US prison and try telling people there how meaningless "white" is in the US judicial system.

Well, visit any US prison and tell me why, exactly, it's more important to distinguish between Fijians and Tongans than it is to distinguish between Irish and Italians.

I'm not really sure I understand your point. "White" means a lot of different (and contradictory) things in a lot of different contexts; two contexts in which it is an decidedly ambiguous or obfuscatory category are those of "race" and "ethnicity." Anytime you're asking someone to categorize themselves as "white," you might has well have the other options be black, yellow, red, and brown.

Visit any US prison and try telling people there how meaningless "white" is in the US judicial system.

Meant to address this above, to wit: Again, divisive bullcrap. Walk into the "white" wing of any U.S. prison and ask them how meaningful (read: advantageous) being "white" turned out to be for them. Then ask them how advantageous or meaningful money, education, drug law reform or access to substance abuse/mental health services would have been to them. Ask the same question in the "black" or "hispanic" wings. Notice how the answers are identical? (I actually did this when I was a sophomore in high school, for a science fair project). Now you're getting somewhere; now you've got a real target, one that can and should be taken down.

Like I said: Dangerous, divisive bullcrap.

This is the sort of thing white-identified folks (previously known as the advantaged) get to nattering about when they can't decide what to buy next.

TH, is that you? If so, come on. What would Jim Goad say?

you're my hero, love this post

Hey, that's a hell of a compliment, coming from Bruce fuckin Lee!

I think Jim Goad would say: Hopefully the federal government has an accurate database to draw from when my legislator needs to appropriate funds to his/her district.
Without said funds, I don't get food stamps. Without food
stamps, I have nothing to sell for cash in order to buy my precious Milwaukee's Best. Without my Milwaukee's Best, I get angry. When I get angry, I go to jail...or pump out a 'zine. Either way it costs the taxpayers money.

P.S. Bruce Lee was half Irish. If you don't believe me, you can search the Hong Kong census records to prove me wrong. Until 1961, 98% of Hong Kong's population was Irish. True story. Why do you think The English gave it back without so much as a whimper? Census? Who needs a census!?

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