It’s Not Easy Being Non-Hispanic White

Fifties coupleClearly, I have not been paying attention. Apparently, since a few Censuses ago, the various racial boxes we have to put ourselves in have been changing. Recently I had to fill out some forms for the Community College where I’m taking classes and was astonished to find that I am no longer White, but Non-Hispanic White. In my mind, this is not progress. I’ve gone from the blandest category — basically the absence of all color — to being defined as NOT something. We Pigmentally Challenged just can’t catch a break.

As I combed through the InterWebs trying to understand this new designation, I began to understand what the Census is trying to do: more accurately reflect how people are identifying themselves. Especially our growing Latino/Hispanic population. They come in all flavors and colors and no one box could contain them all, although I think many of us have come to mistakenly think of them as shades of brown. How does that account, say, for someone like Desi Arnaz? At the height of the segregated Fifties — when Lena Horne was carefully cropped out of any MGM movie shown down South — he appeared in the nation’s most popular sitcom flaunting his miscegenation with the Whitest of redheads? Clearly, back then, America didn’t consider all Hispanics as a different race.

In fact, I’d always thought that “Hispanic” was a cultural designation, identifying a native speaker from a Spanish speaking country or area. And that’s what’s becoming confusing. Yesterday, it seems these forms only wanted to know our race. At that time, there were very few boxes we could check: Black, White, Asian, American Indian. Now it’s getting all jumbled up with cultural categories. How would a new immigrant of Afro-Cuban background identify himself? Black? Hispanic? Both? What about a Native American from a Southwest border town who grew up with Spanish as a first language? Our President is bi-racial, but he clearly identifies himself as African-American. Just as the famous Native American warrior, Quanah Parker, although he ordered none of his raiding tribe to kill White women for fear one would be his recaptured White mother, considered himself completely Comanche.

Not that our notions of what is a race haven’t been constantly changing. Back in the 1800s, Italians and Irish who entered this country were considered “other” races. I even found reference to a screed written by Ben Franklin back in 1751. In Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, he complains about a group of “dusky” outsiders who clung to their native language and were reluctant to accept English ways. He was referring to the German immigrants of Pennsylvania! So the more things change…

Casper the Friendly Ghost

Being called "White" makes me think of Caspar the Friendly Ghost. The most boring of cartoon characters. I'd rather be Bugs Bunny.

And are skin colors what we really want to use to define ourselves? Or would we rather identify culturally? Several African American friends have remarked to me that they don’t like the term “Black”. As one said, “I’m not Black. My skin is brown.” Even though I am guilty of falling into that usage simply because it’s fewer syllables than African-American, the point is taken. I don’t much like being White. I’ve got rose undertones to my skin thanks to Polish ancestry and despite SPF 80 and higher sun block, I’m a different color in the summer. Besides, White is boring. Makes me think of Caspar the Friendly Ghost.

But as long as the Census is trying to broaden its categories so everyone feels comfortable that they have an accurate box to check, maybe Lighter Complected People of Northern European Extraction should lobby for some new designations. One of the few things that we of the previously mentioned category seem to have in common is that we are one of the only peoples on Earth who maintain our ability to process lactose into adulthood. And milk being white and all, that might be a category: The Lactose Positive Peoples. Except, I’m lactose intolerant (even though my family guzzles the white stuff as if they are on a one family crusade to keep America’s dairies in business). So I’m opted out of even that category.

So I’m opening the floor here. How about those of us who identify as Melanin Lite come up with a zippy new category for ourselves.

Except I’m not asking the British. I already tried that.

Me: “I’m taking on a weighty social issue today. How should people like us more accurately categorize ourselves? What box would you like to see on a Census to define yourself?”

Andy: “British.”

Me: “That’s a nationality. That’s not a racial category. Think again.”

Andy: “How about ‘The Best’?”

Take note Census takers. In addition to categories for Race and Cultural Affiliation, we’ll need one for Attitude.


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Author: Lisa

Although I'd like to think of myself as a rootin', tootin', wine-makin' cowgirl, I currently only live in Sonoma part-time. Mostly I'm on freeways between San Jose, San Francisco and Sonoma. With two yapping terriers in crates behind me. We try to enjoy all three places and points in between. Which will explain why my post subjects are all over the map.

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  1. George Carlin quote: “I don’t try to tan, I just try to neutralize the blue.”

    That’s me. Irish American Blue.

  2. Oh that is so good, Andy. I would definitely check “The Best” if offered. Actually, I never, ever fill those things out correctly. Several times I have been an Asian Nuclear Brain Surgeon with an income of under $20,000. I would prefer the option to check “The Best” during the time I lack creativity.

  3. I like “the best” as well, although
    I often just put American.
    Same thing.

  4. “Rosacean”

  5. Race? Human

  6. Some of my freshmen in high school English classes in 1986 complained that there was not a “hillbilly” choice on the CTBS form.

    I like the Human answer too. Katherine Anne Porter was known to answer that way.

  7. I think they should just have a color chart and you pick the best match.

  8. Fantastic post!! For my community college application I believe I was just plain ‘ole “Caucasian” – We are both about the same level of whiteness – especially since I avoid the sun. I think a category for “Casper” would be appropriate.

  9. Pet peeve of mine = “African-American” on all of the online forms. As a British/European woman of West Indian heritage this drives me crazy!

    Like the vast, vast, VAST majority of Black people in the world, I don´t have anything to do with America and don´t relate to it culturally at all!

  10. At least in California, they are trying to cover all the bases. There are boxes for Black or Negro (whichever you prefer) and you can check several boxes.

  11. I fail to understand why we are identified as anything but americans..other than native americans we are a jumble of races and cultures none of which are native..we are named for a continent not a race of similarly genetic people..we are all Mongrels

  12. I agree, if you are here legally, you should be considered American. However, I am WHITE, not non-hispanic white. There should only be the following categories:
    Native Americans

    It shouldn’t matter where your ancestors came from otherwise I would be considered, German-English-Irish American. How about sticking that on your census?

  13. The thing about those categories, Cheryl, is that half of them are skin colors and half of them are racial groups. From what I understand about the Census, it’s just as much trying to get a handle on who we THINK we are as who we really are. So the fact that so many people are identifying themselves as mixed race or in multiple categories is as significant as how many are in what “box”.

  14. Instead of census forms, people should submit DNA samples, so that the Census Office can classify them any way they want.


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