As conversation starts up again about the census scheduled for 2020 — namely how it will include a brand-new citizenship question — critics are also attacking the design of the survey for its limited range of racial identification preferences, allegedly preventing mixed-race people and sub-populations to articulate exactly who they are.
Earlier this year, after testing versions of the census, the Trump administration announced that it would not approve proposals to add a separate racial categories for those who identify as Hispanic or Middle Eastern and North African (MENA). Instead, similar to the census in 2010, both groups will likely have to mark themselves as white or black, or identify themselves separately using the “other” box.
But a 2017 report done by the United States Census Bureau found that current racial categories as employed by the census concern “a number of racial and ethnic communities, such as Middle Eastern populations or Afro-Caribbean populations” and that “nearly half of Hispanic or Latino respondents do not identify within any of the OMB [Office of Management and Budget] race categories.”
Selena Saad, a fourth year global studies student, who is part Sierra Leonean and part Lebanese, identifies herself as being “Afro-Arab.” On applications that ask about her race, she said she usually opts for the mixed-race or other option. But when neither are available, Saad said, it gets complicated, though she usually chooses the Black/African-American option or will decline to state.
Historically, surveys like the census have coded people from the MENA region as white. On the United States Census Bureau website, the standard for who counts as white are those “having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.” But this classification gets tricky, especially for those in North Africa and the Middle East who do not see themselves as being white.
“We’re technically considered a part of the census like Caucasians,” Saad told The Bottom Line. “But I kinda refuse to accept that.” Fourth year anthropology major Naia Al-Anbar, who is Latinx, Egyptian, and Shammari Bedouin, feels similarly about the forced designation of people from the MENA region to identify as white.
“I’m forced to do that and I feel a lot of frustration about it.” Al-Anbar said. “We get dehumanized so thoroughly in this country, and by everyone around us, that the fact that we have to write down white is just rubbing salt on the wound. It invalidates our entire experience.”
The experiences of people who identify as mixed-race is admittedly hard to capture, given the many ways that one can be mixed-race and the many ways that a person can be perceived by their peers.
“There isn’t one set of experiences for mixed race people — a lot depends on the mix, it depends on whether you are male or female, it depends the context that you grew up in,” said Paul Spickard, a professor of History, Black Studies, and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Spickard himself identifies as a “monoracial white guy,” but photographs of two of Spickard’s own children, who are half-white and half-Chinese, are featured in an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles and in a recently published book titled Hapa.me: “15 Years of the Hapa Project.”
Both the exhibition and the book were created by one of Spickard’s colleagues at UCSB, Kip Fulbeck, who set out to explore and capture through photography the experiences of people mixed with Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry. Spickard also wrote the forward for one of Fulbeck’s previous books, titled “Part Asian, 100% Hapa.“
One of the realities that mixed-race people face, Spickard said, is that “they get asked the question ‘What are you?’ a lot.” But it can be difficult to answer that question when, in deciding how to explain to others, some things might be left out.
Mia Winther-Tamaki, a second-year environmental studies major who is half-Japanese and half-white (Russian and German), says the way she is perceived depends on who she is surrounded by. In Japan, she says, she is sometimes treated as a “white American foreigner.” But in the United States and on the UCSB campus, people are more likely to consider her mixed race.
Ricky Barajas, who is Mexican and black, will usually choose black as the option on form if multi-ethnic or multi-racial is not available. But in real life, he finds the questioning from his peers to be weird.
“It’s really uncomfortable when the first question people have for you is about what you are mixed with.” Barjas says. “Because, I don’t know, what does it matter?”
The variety in which mixed-race people identify themselves suggests that the race question on the census is ineffective, or at least very limited, in capturing the various experiences that exist in the United States.