Michele Humes (I live in New York and I write about food.)

After The Census, Or, Leave My Race Out Of It

My mother is a naturalized American citizen, of Chinese ethnicity, from Hong Kong. My father, who is white, was born in New Jersey and raised in Illinois.

I have been an American citizen since birth. Yet the U.S. government didn’t officially recognize my mixed ethnicity until the 2000 Census, when I was 19 years old. At the time of the 1990 Census, when I was living in Los Angeles, the government demanded that I identify, for administrative purposes, as either Chinese or white. How does a 9-year-old girl make that choice?

How does anyone?

With its new, more sensitive rubric for racial self-identification, the Census Bureau is more progressive than, say, my local YMCA, which required me to pick one race or the other before processing my gym membership.

“It’s not a big deal,” said the desk clerk, who accepted my incomplete form and, I am certain, registered me as “Chinese” anyway.

It is a big deal. Don’t tell me who my parents are. Don’t tell me that the Chinese half of my ancestry, because it’s the half that most readily, visually registers in a (for now) predominantly white country, is what counts. Stop doing your damnedest to set me apart.

If I had my way with the Census, the question wouldn’t be asked at all. Since that’s unrealistic, I’m going to suggest some amendments to its parameters. And because I’m too worked up to be especially articulate about it, these “suggested amendments” will take the form of rhetorical questions. Herewith:

At what point does an American-born “Japanese” person, who doesn’t speak Japanese and has never been to Japan, cease to be Japanese?

Why does the Census distinguish between those of Chinese, Japanese and Korean origin, when anyone with dark skin is simply “black”? For the purposes of this inane questionnaire, is an immigrant who arrived from Ethiopia 5 years ago “equivalent” to a fourth-generation, dark-skinned resident of Detroit? If so, what depressing things does it say about our visually informed assumptions about our fellow human beings?

(See also: “whiteness.”)

Relatedly: I demand the release of the document detailing the criteria for a book’s inclusion in the “African-American Interest” section of the Brooklyn Public Library. Do white writers writing about black people make the grade? Do black writers writing about white people? What about black writers writing about gardening?

We can only truly “celebrate” “diversity” once we have stopped counting.