Writing at the intersection of motherhood, feminism and my Latinidad

06 June 2010

I'm still not White, but am I American Indian?

A few months ago when a bunch of us Latinas and Latinos were discussing which box to check on the Census we came up with a good way to express our desire to be seen as Latino to the government. Not white. Latino. We would check yes for Hispanic/Latino and then write in Latino for other.

The Department of Education ain't gonna play that game.

Last month my daughter came home with a note asking us to re-identify her (our) ethnicity for school records [Link is not to her school, just an example]. There was no "other" option (see below). OK, I"ll just leave the second question blank and check the yes for Hispanic/Latino. Then I read further on that if I did that, someone at her school would check a box for us. WTF? The U.S. Department of Education is requiring this of all students, staff, faculty/teachers across the country. As someone who works in education, I had to do this for myself.

Part One: Is this person Hispanic or Latino? (Must choose one)
  • Hispanic or Latino
  • Not Hispanic or Latino
Part Two: Select one or more of the following categories that apply to this person.
  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Asian
  • Black or African American
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
  • White
See how in part two, one can be any or all of these, but none of them reflect my heritage as a Mexican-American. The lack of Hispanic/Latino in part two is moving researchers to look into how we see ourselves. Yet, I fear that the researchers aren't quite getting it either. In a recent article about Latinos seeing themselves as White they said:

However, in the New Immigrant Survey used in this study, participants were not given the option of choosing “some other race.” 
As a result, in the New Immigrant Survey, more than three-quarters of respondents (79 percent) identified themselves as white, regardless of their skin color.

“This shows that Latino immigrants do recognize the advantages of a white racial identity. Most are attempting to push the boundaries of whiteness to include them, even if their skin color is darker,” Frank said.

About 14 percent of the sample refused to identify with any of the listed races, even though this was not an official option in the survey. (emphasis mine)

Excuse me? Really? As someone who had to fill out a survey just like the one studied, lemme tell ya how I thought my way thru it. Definitions come from the sidebar on this page. My judgment is in bold & italics.
  • American Indian or Alaska Native:: A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America), and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment. Close...
  • Asian:: A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam. No.
  • Black or African American:: A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. Um, technically we all do, right? But no.
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander:: A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands. No.
  • White:: A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. No.
I'm left with reaching waaaay back into Conquistador history to check off white. I've also been told that somewhere on my maternal side, a stubborn and in love Spanish girl ran off to Mexico (now Texas) to marry her beloved and start a ranch. Still have to verify this logical* part of my family history. But I kept going back to the American Indian definition. Yes, I have origins in the original peoples of North America, specifically the mountains of Durango and Baja. Many of my family elders look a lot more like Navajo than Spanish or European.

My decision? I marked American Indian. And I feel terrible.

I feel terrible because I believe that American Indian should be reserved for American Indians...Navajo, Cherokee and Alaskan Natives. I was not going to let someone chose my heritage for me. I don't think that White reflects my history either. But there isn't a straight up Latino box!

So going back to the study that said Latinos chose White for the advantages. No. I'd gather to say that Latinos chose White (when other isn't available) because we are practically forced to choose it. For those of us who don't have Hawaiian, Black or Asian ancestors, what else are we supposed to do? Either option I was left with wasn't authentic. I also know that these counts feed into policy. Do I up the Native numbers or the White numbers? What's the implications for that?

I'd love to hear from other Latinos who have had to make this DOEd decision. I'd also welcome comments from the Native community, even if you want to tell me I screwed up.

*This would cement my line about raising the latest in a long line of stubborn women.

20 comments:

That is gobsmackingly appalling.

I'm Anglo, so the boxes are easy for me, even if they annoy me. (None of us like being put in boxes.) I mean, I'm checking off the same box as a person of French and Danish ancestry, while my ancestry is Irish, Austrian, Russian and (like most "Anglos), a little Native American.

My husband is from El Salvador, and our children are thus bi-racial, (really, multi-racial if you think about it.) My husband has no idea what mix or percentage he is of Indigenous and Spanish. He has no idea which tribes either.

On a paper at school, my oldest son, (who is dark skinned), had to choose ONE race. Latino was actually listed, and that's how he chose to identify - but it doesn't reflect the whole truth.

My youngest son is light skinned and up until recently thought he was "white like Mommy", even though we've told him repeatedly that he's just as much "half Salvadoran" as his older brother.

The Census was beyond frustrating. Here is how I handled it:

http://latinaish.wordpress.com/2010/03/17/the-2010-census-and-the-race-question/

(Hope you don't mind me posting the link since the explanation is as long and complicated as the question!)

PS - I adore the story about the ancestor on your maternal side running off. Qué romantico :)

I know how you feel. I'm not white either- I'm Arab on one side and Hispanic on the other. I identify mainly as Arab, but under no circumstances am I white. Look at that list- you certainly don't see Arab on there and the reason is that you're supposed to check the box labelled white if you're Arab.

On what planet are Arabs or Latinos in this country seen as white, treated as white, or given the benefit of the doubt like whites?

This is crazy, Veronica! My daughter is still in pre-school, so I had no idea this was going on.
I also had no idea I belonged to the American Indians category! I, like you, would check off that and feel terrible about misrepresenting the true indigenous tribes that populate this country.
Then again, at least it is recognized that the term "America" represents the two continents of South and North America. In the least, the term "American Indians" is all-inclusive, yet not absolute of all American races.
There's not one term that can unite all Americans in race.
At least "Latino" unites us in culture.

Hi, I came over via shakesville...

I am white, so it's all laid out for me, so to speak...but but but...
It seems odd there is questions 1
and question 2.

Why not combine?
Why count Hispanic/Latino, what-- as half that on one question, and yet include it in the white category in another?

Seems spurious and even though I am not an expert on statistics, rather redundant and contradictory and confusing! Doesn't this make for bad stats?

Anyway, I am befuddled, and have been since I saw that myself somewhere in some survey.

Good post.

According to these boxes, I'm right in between "White" and "Asian." My heritage is more Sri Lankan than anything else. And yet I've always been encouraged to check off the "White" box since my dad is the Anglo one. But this Department of Education survey is ridiculous. I'm sorry your child and yourself have to answer to these demands.

Thanks for the comments everyone.

As for the Arab and SE Asian boxes, yes, yes, yes! I was actually pondering how White seems to not just be a default, but a "we can't fit you elsewhere" box. A little bit of a "standard" as well as "junk drawer" category.

Senora Lopez...Thank you for your link!

Oh, normaltrouble...I read a study on the Census site earlier this year that said that you will get MORE Hispanic/Latino checks if you separate the questions out and ask it first.

Hey, just wanted to write to check to make sure you know there are a *whole lot more* tribes in the "Native American" category than just Native Alaskans, Cherokee, and Navajo. I wasn't sure if you were using those three as your "examples" for a larger group or not.

TheDeviantE: Oh no...just examples, definitely. There's an official list on the DoEd site if you follow the "sidebar" link in the post.

In high school my best friend refused to identify as white she is Greek. We are no longer in contact so I have no idea how she filled out the census.

I am mixed and only recently have forms allowed me to "choose all that apply" My son appears white but gets all the boxes checked. My niece who also appears white only gets the white box checked (thats her mother's choice things may or may not change when she is old enough to fill out the forms for herself). Anyone who believes these forms are accurate is ridiculously naive.

The only way we'll get an accurate record of how people identify is to ask it as an open ended question and allow each and every person to write in their ethnicity and race as they see it.

If its so important to narrow it down to a smaller number of categories they can do that after the fact the same way you can ask people to write in their age you can later group it into under 18, 18 and over or whatever.

It seems like they are forcing us to choose White, que no? Because I can check off Black/African American because my mami is Puerto Rican but I def. was raised in a mexican/puerto rican household. And yet I do maintain community attachment.

"In addition, any student who has previously been identified as Hispanic or Latino must also be re-identified to reflect one of the racial categories specified by the U.S. Department of Education in the second part of the question." but, hello, I'm not one of the "racial categories specified by the U.S. Department of Education." so what then?

As a teacher who had to try to explain this survey to every single parent I talked to at conferences (through a translator half the time), this was incredibly frustrating. I had no idea what to tell the parents, except to say, "I'm sorry, this survey makes no sense and excludes you. But you have to fill it out anyway." It was extremely embarrassing. And then to be asked to fill out several students' surveys for them--I was sorely tempted to rip them up, but I didn't know what kind of consequences that might have, either. I will say that most parents chose the American Indian option--under no circumstances did they want to be identified as white. That's an interesting phenomenon in and of itself, how my students think of "white." Despite my blindingly pale skin, each year my students are surprised when I describe myself as white--they assume I am a light-skinned Latina for some reason that I cannot figure out.

I've always struggled with this. Even before the census and the recent events, I've had to fill out employment applications and other govt paperwork, where I've been forced to choose either "white, black, or native american". I don't identify with any, but Latino was separated much like this survey you mention.

For the census, I marked all three. I figured it was better to say I've got all three bloods than to have to choose just one.

My husband is from Trinidad and identifies himself as Black (not African American, since he's not even American). It will be interesting to see if my daughter will identify as Black of Latino descent, just Black, or just Latino.

I can't stand that we have to choose instead of just being able to say other or multiracial.

thanks for all the comments!

Natalie: Thank you for sharing your personal experience. At least you know you aren't alone in your frustration. As for thinking you are Latina, perhaps it's your spunk and caring ways? I hearby anoint you honorary Latina!

"American Indian or Alaska Native::
A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America), and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment"

the problem with them limiting the category this way is that many Central and South Americans have lost their tribal affiliation because of colonization

this is the equivalent of saying that I as a Black American can only check Black/African if I know my ethnic/tribal affiliation which I can never know because this information was taken away from my family during slavery

this is a function of white supremacy, it benefited the government to make sure as many people as possible were considered African but the opposite is true for the Indigenous population, the less people counted as Indigenous the less land/rights claims they can make against the US government

*re-posting this comment to Racialicious*

I face this exact same problem, and it's so nice to see it out in the open like this. If given the option in the second part, I always choose "mixed" or write in "Latino" but when those aren't an option I feel very torn. My daughter has traceable native heritage, but I don't, so I do usually put "white" even though that feels like a lie to me. I "pass" as white (and oh the racist things I have heard when people don't take time to think through my name) but I will only identify that way if given no other choice.

My boyfriend works for the census and he said that when he would get to that part of the questionnaire, the Hispanic folks would be incredibly confused. Add on top of that when he's reading the census questions to them in Spanish (he speaks enough to get through the questions, but not enough to explain why the government decided to word the question that way). He hates it, and really wishes there were more he could do, but he's just a lowly enumerator.

Queen C...thank you for your comment. *hugs* to the boyfriend.

Well said! I do NOT understand why Latino is not its own category. My husband is half-Mexican. In the 2000 census, there was no Latino box so he wrote in "Latino." In the 2010 census he marked white and Hispanic--which works for him since he is visibly white.

But it makes no sense, in this country (crass as it is), we have a lot of "brown" people--how can you be asked to choose from white or black (and while you are right that with indigenous blood, you should be able to check American Indian, that category has special meaning in this country for those with tribal affiliation). So it's really quite ridiculous that our census and dept of ed surveys are so far off from our cultural reality! Great post!