Race is an essay question for some Americans

Courtenay Edelhart

It’s that time of year again. Across the nation, millions of people are being asked to record basic profile data for the 2010 United States census, including their race.

For most, this is an easy task. Find the racial box that fits and check it. Done.

But the last time I answered that question, which was 10 years ago in the 2000 Census, I was as paralyzed with angst as the undecided voters we reporters converged on as Al Gore and George W. Bush faced off the same year. Just as many of those voters said they couldn’t say who they were backing until election day, I had no idea which box — or boxes — I’d check until I had census form in hand.

You see, 2000 was the first time in history that the federal government was willing to acknowledge my existence.

My twin sister and I were born in 1967 to an African-American gentile mother and a white Jewish father. We arrived just a few months before the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated laws in some states against interracial marriage.

Uncle Sam could admit that people of different races got married, but it would be more than three decades before he would officially recognize their offspring.

Census forms prior to 2000 forced multiracial individuals to ally themselves with just one parent, and if one of your parents was white, that one was usually ignored.

The origin of that practice dates to slavery. Counting a child with even “one drop” of black blood as black swelled the ranks of those forced into bondage.

These days, the “one drop” rule has the opposite effect. The 2010 Census will determine how more than $400 billion in resources is allocated, so it is very much in the black community’s interest to claim as many people as it can.

I am absolutely on board with that. After centuries of being shortchanged, I want to see the black community get every advantage it can financially and politically.

And yet…

My race isn’t a check-one-box kind of question. It’s an essay question, and the answer may be different depending on who’s asking and why.

I’ve been morphing all my life. As a very young child, I identified as white. In my teens and 20s, I considered myself black. In my early 30s, I began another slow evolution to biracial.

Sometimes, my identity changes in the course of a single day. In the 1980s, when I encountered anti-Semites on my college campus, I felt more like an Ashkenazi Jew than a black woman. But when I rallied against South African apartheid later that day, I felt deeply the African blood coursing through my veins.

So I joined hundreds of other multiracial individuals at a Multiracial March on Washington in 1996. We demanded the right to acknowledge both of our parents.

It was a very personal fight for me, because my white father had died three years earlier. Denying him felt wrong.

We won that fight, sort of. Some advocated for a “multiracial” category. We didn’t get that, but we got the right to check as many boxes as were applicable.

I was pleased with that. Some weren’t.

There are people of good will who would like to see all racial classifications go away. We’re all just human, they insist.

But to me, “human” is just code for assimilation. Why don’t you quit eating collard greens (or salsa, or egg rolls) and swallow some darn meat and potatoes like all the fine white people who are trying to embrace you?

Well, I happen to like collard greens, thank you very much. I just season them with turkey instead of pork.

So I checked two boxes on the 2000 census. I am a person who is both black and white, and chose to honor my late father by being counted as such.

Many other multiracial individuals made the same choice that year: 4.7 percent of Californians and 2.4 percent of Americans.

But there is not anything close to consensus among multiracial people on how to deal with this. President Barack Obama reportedly checked only black on this year’s census. I’d bet money Tiger Woods checked at least three boxes, reflecting his black, white and Asian heritage.

Truthfully, I wasn’t certain what I was going to do this year. The economy is so miserable that every penny the black community can get is critical.

I was an angst-ridden undecided voter again, worrying over the ballot box.

But the decision was made for me. I’m a single mom and moved in with my semi-retired mother a couple of years ago to get free child care. My mother filled out this year’s census form and mailed it without consulting me. She checked black only.

It’s not that I necessarily disagreed with her choice. It’s just that after nearly a lifetime of others defining me, I would like to have made that choice myself.

On Thursday, I whined about it to an old friend in my native Chicago. She, too, is both black and white and marched with me on the National Mall in 1996.

All for naught, I said glumly.

“Well, don’t worry about it,” she quipped. “You can be white in 10 years and even it out again.”


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