Check All That Apply: Census 2000 lets people make their marks when on race

CHECK ALL THAT APPLY:
Census 2000 lets people make their marks when on race

By LISA GUTIERREZ – The Kansas City Star
Date: 04/02/00 22:15

Pick one.

Black. White. Hispanic. American Indian. Asian/Pacific Islander.

For years Steve Wood, whose mother was Caucasian and his father American Indian, was forced into an either/or box. On employment applications. On school registration papers. On census forms.

Pick one. Just one.

Wood often refused to, marking two boxes to identify his race on employment applications. “People have asked me: Did you mean to fill out both of those?” says the 46-year-old, who’s an organization effectiveness expert at Utilicorp United Inc.

When he gathered his family around the kitchen table to fill out their Census 2000 form, the issue of race came up again. This time Wood and his six children — including three adopted sons — had a choice.

For the first time the census allowed people to mark more than one race and ethnic category to describe themselves, creating 32,000 possible racial combinations, compared with 15 in 1990.

Census forms had never allowed Wood to be all that he knew he was. Ignore part of your heritage and check off the race you most closely resemble, or label yourself “other.” “We have difficulty with `other,’ ” Wood says.

So do many other Americans. Demographers say 7 percent of Americans are multiracial, a number expected to triple to 21 percent by the middle of the new century.

The numbers that result from the 2000 census may not prove eye-opening — census officials say less than 2 percent of the population will mark more than one race box — but there’s a chorus of voices like Wood’s demanding that they not be shoved into traditional race categories.

Count celebrities like Tiger Woods and Mariah Carey among them, both of whom have spoken publicly with pride of their multilayered heritages. Woods even invented a word, “Cablinasian,” to describe his Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian roots.

The multiracial community is increasingly represented in the media, too, with new magazines like Mavin, which began publishing two years ago in Seattle for young readers with multiethnic backgrounds. Online journals like www.newpeoplemagazine.com, and The Multiracial Activist (www.multiracial.com) cover civil rights issues and offer forums for biracial and multiracial people to discuss common experiences.

National advocacy and lobbying groups are building political clout as well. A civic group called Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally) helped push for the changes to this year’s census forms.

Though many multiracial advocates hope the count will bring recognition to one of the fastest-growing segments of the American population, the form itself stirred a debate that promises to continue amid questions regarding the Census Bureau’s methods of recording people who mark more than one race box.

The NAACP and some Hispanic and Asian organizations worried that broadening the officially recognized racial categories would water down their lobbying clout and hurt equal-opportunity efforts. They urged members to continue to mark only one box. (NAACP officials in Kansas City said they were more interested in simply getting people to fill out the forms and the race question was not an issue here.)

The Multiracial Activist went so far as to tell people to “Just Say No” to the race question and boycott it all together.

No matter the arguments over the form, a universally held hope was that at least the effort would begin to reshape our definition of race in this country, an issue that no longer is black and white.

For many the census count wasn’t about political status or clout. It was more personal than that. It was about identity.

 

Family branches

When friends Tiffany Rogers and Jami Bass look at each other, one sees a girl who could pass as black, the other sees a friend who could pass as white. Others see them that way, too.

Sixteen-year-old Tiffany’s mother is white and Hispanic, her father American Indian, white and African-American. Jami’s father is African-American, her mother Hispanic and American Indian.

“I don’t trip off of it,” Jami says. “I am who I am.”

For Tiffany and Jami, students at Kansas City’s Alta Vista Charter School, being multiracial means being forced by others to define themselves on an everyday basis.

They and multiracial classmates John Woska and Ashley Riggs tell how people look at the color of their skin, their eyes, the way they dress, the way they talk and the straightness of their hair and try to peg them.

At some point in their young lives, they’ve all been asked: What are you?

John, whose father is white and mother is Hispanic and American Indian, jokingly says his slicked-back black hair gives a clue to his Hispanic roots, “but the cowlick is Caucasian.”

They’ve all used humor to deflect harsh comments, although some realities cannot be waved off with a joke.

Ashley, a fair-skinned teen with blunt-cut brown hair, is white and African-American. She recalls beating up a boy at one of her schools when he called her “little white girl.” To her it was an epithet.

These are common experiences for multiracial children and young adults, says Kevin Barber, who specializes in working with multiracial children and their families as outreach therapist at the Niles Home for Children in Kansas City.

He’s currently researching multiracial children to develop tools and skills to help them resolve identity conflicts. One that’s proven effective is to have multiracial children create family trees, an exercise that helps identify their own place among the many branches.

Barber, whose mother is white, his father African-American, lived it himself growing up in Topeka, where a girl once scratched him to see what color his blood was.

Society’s tendency to force people into single-race categories creates internal struggles for those who don’t fit neatly into those boxes, Barber says.

“I don’t mean dysfunction,” he says. “I mean a struggle of trying to identify. A monoracial person has a base group to identify with. Multiracial children have two groups they’re trying to identify with.”

 

On the grow

In 1990 there were 2 million children younger than 18 who were reported as being of a different race than one or both of their parents. That number is expected to grow after the latest census count.

Sophia Julieta Dominguez-Heithoff, born in Kansas City last month, will be part of that future.

On the census form her parents, Andres Dominguez, 40, and Amy Heithoff, 37, created a separate category and wrote in: Caucasian of Mexican origin.

It was the second time in her young life that her parents felt compelled to acknowledge that she is the daughter of a Mexican-born father and an Irish-American mother. Hospital forms that asked Sophia’s race offered only the traditional categories.

Sophia, her parents say, will never be an “other.”

” `Other’ is just so nondescriptive,” says Dominguez, a program officer at the Kauffman Foundation. “There’s just a certain coldness in the description.”

The new parents purposefully gave their baby a name that is easily translated into Spanish and English, a step that would be applauded by researchers who say parents play a key role in helping biracial and multiracial children develop their sense of self.

“It’s important for her to know truly who she is,” Heithoff says. “And both sides have such rich histories that it would be a tragedy to not expose her to both cultures.”

To reach Lisa Gutierrez, features reporter for The Star, call (816) 234-4987 or send e-mail to \n lgutierrez@kcstar.com

Copyright 2000 Kansas City Star

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