The Census: Based on Social Racial Attitudes

We filled out the census today. I’m Mexican, English, Tigua (Ysleta del Sur Pueblo), Scots-Irish, Apache, German, Yaqui, Swedish and Sephardic as far as I know.

I remember when people started hating Mexicans. I didn’t believe them.

I remember thinking, “They didn’t hate Mexicans when I was a kid. They’re just doing it now because it’s cool. Don’t they see that it was cool to hate the Irish long ago, and the Italians, and the Japanese and that racism is just a thing to make people feel a little better than someone different than them? Doesn’t matter who it is, just as long as it’s around as a security blanket of blame.” I wouldn’t accept the hate then and I won’t now.

It’s not real to me. Even though it is real. And was very real for my grandparents. Tata would talk about how he and Nana went to a restaurant with their newborn baby and Tata was in his Navy uniform. The restaurant wouldn’t let them eat there. And he would fill with fire, sitting calmly in his chair at the kitchen table, and say, “Never say wet-back around me.” I see the pain they carry.

Mom was taught to let go of her heritage in little ways, like she doesn’t know Spanish very well. And I was raised away from both sides of my family in the deep South. I was doing so well in Spanish sophomore year. Then I moved to Arizona and had to drop back a year because they were so much more advanced there. It’s weird to not have a lot of tradition from either side. But I can’t express my gratitude for the roots I received from the South. I loved it there.

Because I look Asian and sound “white,” I don’t get a lot of hate for being Mexican. I’ve had people be racist to Asians in front of me and then apologize to me. I had someone drive by me in the Park Mall parking lot in Tucson and yell, “Suck my dick, you Chinese Bitch!” And I yelled back, “I’M NOT CHINESE!” If they’re gonna hate, at least get it right.

But when I go to the doctor in L.A., there’s a box for me to check that asks something like, “Are you Latino?” and no other boxes asking about anything else. It stands out to me so much. It also bothers me on forms when I have to pick only one race box, as though I need to pretend like one parent doesn’t exist. And in most places, there is a box that says, “White.” But I’m not “White,” I’m Scots-Irish, English, German and Swedish. Also, 100 years ago, being Irish was very different than being English, in a negative way. But what about the positive way too? Now it’s all the same. It’s like white-washing whiteness. Where is the Hungarian box for my partner? Does his heritage not matter?

On the census today, there was a page that asked my race. But Hispanic wasn’t on it. All the other races were on that page. But Hispanic was separate. On the page with all the races together asking “What is Your Race?”, it said, “For this census, Hispanic origin is not counted as a race.” The only races were White, Black or African American, Native American or Alaskan Native, Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Other Asian, Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Asian, Chamorro, Other Pacific Islander, and Some Other Race. Under, White, Black, Native American and places where it said Other, the census asked for origins to be written in.

But statistically, the boxes represent race. So if we look at just those, where are the Mexicans? We don’t get a box. We are only counted on the separate page as an origin. Also, where are the Iranians, Egyptians, people from the Middle East? We clicked on the “help” links on each page to learn more. And there it said, “The Category White includes all individuals who identify with one or more nationalities or ethnic groups originating in Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.” So when the race statistics come out, it leaves the potential for it to be said that there are many more “white” people than there actually are.

Screenshot of my 2020 census

My partner wondered when the census started defining white that way. I looked it up and it’s at least defined that way in 2000 & 2010, although they say “Arab” and in 2020 they don’t.

I learned that 2000 was the first year that people could check more than one box. But in 2010, 97% of people still defined themselves as one race only.

Also, from 1790-1960, the first 19 censuses didn’t include Hispanic origin. Hispanic origin started in 1970 and has only been on 5 censuses. Here are some statistics of who was included in the census over time:

1790-1850 “White and Black (Negro), with Black designated as free and slave.”

1850-1920 (minus 1880) “Instructed to also identify Mulattoes (and Quadroons and Octoroons in 1890) among the Black population” Looked it up… Oxford dictionary defines Quadroon as a “Dated/ Offensive” word: a person who is one-quarter black by descent.

1860– “American Indians [excluding those not taxed i.e., living in tribal society] and Chinese (in California only) were identified separately”

1870– “Japanese were identified separately”

1890– “The attempt to enumerate all American Indians started… [but still] included only American Indians who were taxed” in the general questionnaire

1910– “Asian and Pacific Islander categories other than Chinese and Japanese were identified for the first time in decennial census reports, including, for example, Filipino, Hindu, and Korean.”

1930– In this year’s census only “there was a separate race category for Mexican.” This was based largely on who was born in Mexico or whose parents were born in Mexico. [By these standards, I’m not Mexican- neither is my mom or grandparents.] “The race category of Mexican was eliminated in 1940, and 1930 race data were revised to include the Mexican population with the White population.”

1950– “Other Race” was added. This year also included a Spanish Mother tongue category.

1960– “Eskimos and Aleuts were identified in Alaska, and Hawaiians and Part-Hawaiians were identified in Hawaii.”

1970-“the first attempt to identify the entire
Hispanic origin population…

…was defined three different ways in 1970 census reports, the first and second based on 15-percent sample data and the third based on 5-percent sample data… The Spanish origin population in 1970 was overstated in some states, especially in the Midwest and South, because some respondents interpreted the questionnaire category of “Central or South American” to mean central or southern United States.”

“In 1970, such responses in the Other race category… Hispanic entries such as Mexican, Cuban, or Puerto Rican… were reclassified and tabulated as White.”

1980– Data on Hispanic origin were collected on a 100-percent basis

I was born in 1980. But that means generations of my Mom’s family were not welcome on the census before me.

The 2010 census brief titled Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin compares the numbers of Hispanic origin people with White Alone people and shows there are more White Alone people. But it also goes into depth about how “people of Hispanic origin can be any race” and it says in 2010, the “Hispanic population predominantly identified [themselves] as either White or Some Other Race.” I don’t understand how Hispanic origin people can be included in Hispanic origin statistics and White statistics at the same time if the two are being compared to each other.

Anyway, I started out by saying that I can’t feel the racism, but I think what I’m trying to say is that I do feel it. I see it and it’s subtle. But it’s real. At least to me. I don’t like it.

The constitution originally said the census is there to count every person in each state, except “Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons…” which meant slaves. Even from it’s early definition, the census didn’t count everyone. And over time, it seems the census has continued to be less a reflection of the number of people in the US and more a reflection of who is being valued.

Today, it was comforting to read that the census knows it isn’t presenting categories based on anything but what is socially acceptable. The 2020 census says, “The categories included in the questionnaire generally reflect social definitions recognized in this country and do not attempt to define groups biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.” Population DivisionWorking Paper No. 56 on says the racial categories and wording of questions has changed over time reflecting “social attitudes and political considerations…”

I like that they’re honest about what the census is, but do others know? I feel like people may subconsciously pick up on the way these questions are presented and believe there is more math or science or truth in it. I could sense something about the census felt off, like maybe it is one of many things that tell our stories in a skewed way. But it wasn’t until I read all this that I saw they’re not hiding that it’s skewed. I’d prefer it to be a more accurate, equal census so a more accurate, equal conversation about it seeps into the collective conscious.

But it seems to work the other way around. The way we talk and look at things shapes the census. It actually seems cyclical, like one affects the other, but I see that truth creeps in somehow and the cycle expands over time. I hope we all keep mattering to ourselves and speaking up so our heritages can take their space in this beautiful place… so that our real existence on this land is not imagined away.


“Population Division: Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals by Race, 1790 TO 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1970 TO 1990, for the United States, Regions, Divisions and States by Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung, Working Paper No. 56”

“The White Population: 2000”

“Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010”

“News Release: 2010 Census Shows America’s Diversity”

Wikipedia: United States Census

8/28/21 Edit: Found this article on the subject that I like | “On The Census, Who Checks Hispanic, Who Checks White and Why” by NPR

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