Boxed In

By Lise Funderburg

The New York Times
July 10, 1996

People say I can’t have it both ways. Yes, I’m part black and part white, but every day I am forced to choose one or the other. On mortgage applications, school forms and on the decennial United States census, I’ve been asked to pick from four exclusive categories: black, white, American Indian and Asian and Pacific Islander.

Pressure is mounting to include a multiracial option for the census in the year 2000. But for me, this revision would hardly reflect my racial identity.

Changing categories is nothing new for the census. Since the first survey was taken in 1790, when it segmented the population into “slaves, free whites and other free persons,” the categories have been overhauled repeatedly – -1920 was the last year to offer “mulatto,” for instance, and in 1940 “Hindu” was a choice.

Proponents of the multiracial box argue that this is a way of mainstreaming a still marginalized group and an opportunity to expose the fallacy of race in America, where for decades the notorious “one drop” rule reigned: anyone who had one drop of black blood was defined as black and therefore considered inferior. It’s true that there are medical reasons (bone-marrow matching, for example) for improving the current categories. And the multiracial box, advocates claim, is a step toward recognizing how more and more Americans see themselves.

But I fear that this proposal simply creates another category which multiracial people must force themselves into. I don’t think of myself as multiracial; I think of myself as black and white.

A multiracial identity should not be exclusive, but inclusive. People of mixed heritage (which includes up to 75 percent of African-Americans) should be able to check any boxes that apply. Let all Americans speak truthfully about who they are.

Recent experiments by the Census Bureau suggest that neither the multiracial box nor my proposal would significantly change the balance in any one category. These results should ease the concerns of some that the enforcement of civil rights laws — covering everything from affirmative action to redistricting — would be undermined.

Yes, my proposal makes demographic tabulation more complicated. But increasingly, the United States is made up of a complicated population.

When I tell people about my idea, they usually throw up their hands. “You can’t have it both ways,” they say. “You have to choose.” But that’s just the point. I can have it both ways. In fact, I do.