I Am What I Say I Am

By Lise Funderburg

March 26, 2001

According to Russell (my personal trainer by night, a lawyer by day, and a philosopher by disposition), I have white calves. Not white as in pasty, but as in Caucasian. My calves are—how to put it?—substantial, and their shape not only pegs me racially, Russell says, but also makes clear what kind of runner I would be (distance) if, say, hell were to freeze over and I were to take up that sport.

When I filled out my Census form last spring, the issue of my calves never came up. What did arise, however, was a new option that allowed Americans to claim identity in more than one racial group. When the result of this historic change was released last week, it showed that an unexpectedly large number of people had taken advantage of this choice: nearly 7 million, or 2.4% of the population. While the complexity of the outcome has sent demographers scrambling, I celebrate its promise.

Due to circumstances beyond my control (e.g., my birth), race is more plastic for me than for some. The catalog of purported racial characteristics I could assemble seems to be compounded rather than dissolved by my particular heritage: one black parent and one white. Examples follow.

My blackness: love of watermelon, fried foods and well-told stories that may not reside solely in the land of fact. Unconditional love for Stevie Wonder. Half-moons under my fingernails. Rhythm. A fondness for cities, for picking bones clean. A collectivist rather than colonialist view of the world. A behind of consequence. My father.

My whiteness: love of Joni Mitchell. A fondness for the Midwest. A taste for soy milk, vanilla flavored. Tendency to be underdressed at any event. Disdain for black-eyed peas. The ability to dwell, for long spells, in a world not eclipsed by race. Skin, eyes, hair. My mother.

Census 2000 didn’t ask for these details, and unless I missed it, did not include an essay portion. But after years of research, the Census Bureau, by introducing its Check All That Apply option, did advance its stated belief that race is not a static concept. Critics of CATA see it variously as a threat to social justice in its perceived dilution of nonwhite constituencies, or as race obsessed, or as a flaccid nod to the burgeoning ranks of mixed-race Americans. But I think the Census people were savvy. Or, really, credit goes to their overseeing agency, the Office of Management and Budget, which is responsible for telling federal agencies how to use Census data in monitoring civil rights compliance. Now, when data are tabulated for a compliance issue, there is a simple formula. People who check a single race never move from their boxes; in situations where at least two boxes arechecked, minority trumps white, and one minority will trump another, depending on the issue for which data are being collected. Sure, the formula is an embrace of the old one-drop rule (one drop of black blood makes you black), but this retrograde remedy is an appropriate answer to backward thinking, and what could be more backward than racism?

The CATA model has its flaws. Such a fundamental shift in how our country counts race will most likely have repercussions that are impossible to anticipate. And the numbers are indeed fuzzy. Many people—possibly 70% or more of African Americans, for example—could have checked more than one box but did not, for a host of reasons. Moreover, by asking people to self-identify, the Census Bureau’s tabulations don’t begin to measure the way race is typically assessed in our society. In my day-to-day life, it is thousands of unofficial, unsolicited enumerators who make the call on my race by  way  of offhand  remarks, furtive glances, head wiggles, bull-horned street sermons, the pointed embrace, the casual snub, the kiss, the oversight, the intimacy, the job.

Despite its imperfections, the new Census has taken a giant step toward recognizing that race is profoundly contextual, both in its origins and applications. “It’s very clear that race is fluid, it’s changing, it’s dynamic,” says Nampeo McKenney, who retired from the Census Bureau after a 40-year career that culminated in overseeing the CATA model. She means this in a global sense; I find it personally true from moment to moment. I can’t stand the smell of chitterlings, but neither can my Aunt Ruthie, who won’t allow them within a mile of her kitchen.

CATA transcends the peculiar racial quagmire in which this nation finds itself, a consequence of segregation and integration, hate and love, the personal squared off against the political. CATA is a pragmatic negotiation of a complicated social and political reality: namely, that the experience of race has broken out of traditional categories, while the experience of racism is still deeply rooted inside them.