Check One

16 March 2001

I'm not all about politics. Really I'm not. But I was reading Salon and the San Jose Mercury News this week, and the Census data just disturbed me. There were sentences like: "Two million African Americans defined themselves as multiracial." Excuse me? I believe what they meant to say was, "Two million multiracial human beings will be shoved into the 'African American' box despite their explicitly stated self-identification." The point of that sentence -- and of many of the articles I've been reading -- seems to be that people are "really" African American but some of them want to cheat and call themselves multiracial.

Frankly, it's not like "race" has any reality outside of how it affects people's behaviors. It's not like the Census Bureau can go around testing people's skin for melanin and determine what they "really" are. I'm not going to claim that skin color and other physical appearance factors don't affect how people are treated in some parts of this country -- maybe even all over this country. But it's not that people are objecting to the government classifying them. Oh no. It's that people are now allowed to classify themselves as they feel it's appropriate. Out here in California, I run into a lot of multiracial little kids. They pretty obviously have one parent who's East Asian and one who's white. Or one Hispanic and one from the Indian subcontinent. Or black and...well, you take your pick, and there's a little kid who looks like that. Probably in our apartment complex or the one up the hill. And if they don't want to choose that mommy's or daddy's side of the family is more important -- if they want to be more accurate in self-description when they grow up -- who should have a problem with letting them?

The people who make their money off of race-based programs and advocacy, that's who. Of course. And to appease such people, the 2000 Census has a category for "what would you have checked under the old system." They also have protocols: if your "multiracial" checkmarks include African American and Caucasian (or are we just white?), then you count with the former. But if you've got Native American, that trumps everything. There's a hierarchy of oppression going here. So even if you don't fit in the old boxes, by God we will make you fit in one of them anyway. The stated reason for this is that some laws depend on the old categories. So we couldn't rewrite the laws so that they actually reflected how people view themselves and their treatment in the world?

I think the problem is that multiracial kids were not part of most of these folks' plan for civil rights. Civil justice was supposed to come about through affirmative action and diversity seminars. People weren't supposed to get to know each other and break out of the categories. I don't know why they're surprised. It's happened with white ethnic groups already. Mark is a rarity for being all Dutch in his ancestry. My Scandinavian ancestry (a mix of Norwegian and Swedish, horrors!) is also pretty unusual for a white kid these days, especially outside Minnesota and Wisconsin. Timprov's ancestors were English and German. Pretty much everybody we meet (again, especially out here) can respond to questions of ethnicity with either "uh, lots of stuff" or a long laundry list. And if you think there was no pressure to stay inside your own white ethnic group in the past, well, brush up on a little history. They should have seen this coming.

But it's a lot harder to be a demagogue with multiracial people. Especially when "Rainbow Power" is already kind of taken as a theme.

And don't even get me started on the Hispanic designation. Why, exactly, was "Hispanic or not" a separate question, if the Census and all the news media was going to throw it into a pie chart with the other ethnicities as if it had been on the laundry list of other possibilities? Why is it a separate question anyway? I realize that Hispanic is an ethnic or cultural designation. So are all the others!

So. Anyway. Some groups are afraid that they will lose their lobbying power if some "African Americans" are identifying as multiracial instead. What? You mean people will recognize that lobbying groups don't represent an entire skin color, and that people who look similar can have different opinions on issues that matter? That, in fact, there is no one way to "act black" (Hispanic, Asian, etc. -- but it's the African American leaders who are making the most fuss) in politics? That we should stop trying to stuff people into little boxes and let them say what they want to say rather than what their self-appointed spokespeople do? Thank God they were here to alert us to this danger. Let us abolish this "multiracial" category immediately, lest it help us to treat people as individuals.

It's my great grandma's birthday today. She's old. She's been dying by inches for as long as I can remember, so I've ceased really believing in her mortality. Every once in awhile something happens that jolts me, makes me think, Oh, we really won't have Great Grandma Lingen with us for long now. And then she keeps going. The jolts are getting weaker and weaker now. I'm going to be really surprised when she actually can't hang on any longer. With my Gran (my grandpa's mom), we always joked that she was going to outlive us all, and sometimes I am still shocked that she's not alive, because she was so alive when we did have her around. We've never made those jokes with Great Grandma Lingen. But here it is another birthday, and she's one year closer to doing it.

Sometimes I think Spider Robinson is right and God really is an iron.

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