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VERY FIRST PERSON

The Content and Character of the Census

The Government's Latest Pigeonholes Amuse and Annoy These Kids

May 07, 2000|Susan Straight

My three daughters sit around me at the kitchen table and I explain that we must be counted. Why? So the government knows how many people live in this house, in all the houses in the whole country. Why? So that the government can see how much money should be spent in different areas, I say, trying to paraphrase television ads about the census.

Then we begin the form. I am "Person One." I am the mother, the homeowner, the only adult. That puts us in one easily stereotyped category, I think.

The girls watch me check the boxes for myself. They say nothing until I get to

Questions 7 and 8. No, not "Spanish, Hispanic, Latino." I check the box for White.

"That's it?" Gaila, my 10-year-old, asks.

"For me," I answer.

Then I go on to "Persons Two through Four." My kids.

"This is the first time people can check more than one box," I tell them, as we again arrive at Questions 7 and 8. "In the past, you had to pick one race from the boxes."

My girls study the choices. I am blond, pale, my mother Swiss-born, my father American of French extraction. My daughters' father is brown-skinned, with Irish, Native American (Cherokee and Creek) and African ancestors. I glance away from the form, remembering the day I registered Gaila for kindergarten. Another mom with mixed-race kids had told me that she didn't check either box, and staff people at the L.A. school wouldn't let her register her kids. They said she had to check black or white.

"We're neither," my 8-year-old Delphine says softly. We've had this discussion before, when something official, some kind of registration form, needs to be completed. My daughters find the idea of racial classification comic, irritating and completely impossible. They laugh. A few years ago, during a vacation in Switzerland, the sole English-language TV program was Country Music Television, and my girls began listening to Alan Jackson and Faith Hill. When we returned to California, cousins of all races teased them about their new musical tastes. My daughters, in turn, still find it hilarious that I listen to Funkadelic and the Bar-Kays--the music I grew up with here in Riverside, where my friends were as unclassifiable as my children.

I met my kids' father in high school. They've seen his picture with the basketball team. The team was mostly "Black." Yet the star forward was German and black; the star guard was Japanese and black; other players were Alaskan Indian and Mexican, Egyptian and Mexican, and then there was "Bonedell," who was dark-skinned, wore curlers in his processed hair and had almond-shaped eyes that prompted comments such as, "He's got Chinese eyes."

March Air Force Base brought home many international marriages, and I went to school with the children of those unions. My friends were Filipino-Japanese, Filipino-Caucasian, German-black and countless other mixtures of nation, race, culture and sensibility, very few of which fit into boxes that could be checked. We rarely thought about it. We married each other and had kids. Now, a generation later, someone in the government has realized how many people like my children and their friends exist, and parents can put Xs in boxes beside "one or more races to indicate what this person considers himself/herself to be."

Our nation's complexion has changed, and not in ways that can be easily measured. My daughters never knew the old color scheme, didn't understand the concept in kindergarten and don't understand it now.

I told that Gaila I didn't check the boxes back when she enrolled in school. "I'm glad you didn't," she says. "If you had checked white, it's like Daddy doesn't exist. If you had checked black, you don't exist."

A friend who teaches at the girls' elementary school, a blond woman like me, is married to a Japanese American man, and we have often talked about boxes for our children. She told me last week that she felt gratified that the census lets her choose more than one. Before, she had checked different boxes for each of her three children, just to protest.

Rosette, my 4-year-old, leans close to study the small boxes as the girls tell me what to check: "White," "Black, African-Am., or Negro" and "American Indian or Alaska Native." Three boxes, three times, for three children. Then they begin to wonder about their friends' boxes.

"H has brown skin. What is she?" Gaila asks.

"Her father is Chicano, her mother white," I answer. "Like a lot of your friends."

"She goes to cotillion, and takes piano. She's . . . " Gaila frowns. "There's your skin, there's how you act, where you live, how you talk, everything else. Not just color."

Delphine is studying the Hispanic question. "So, Ricky Martin checks Puerto Rican and white?" she asks, grinning.

"What about Lou Bega?" Gaila says. "Does he check Latino and black?"

"Whatever," Delphine says, and that seems to sum it up for them.

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