Clearly, 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…
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?”
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.