Okay. The census is here, and one of the more complex items on this deceptively simple form appears above: Question #8 on race. As I've discussed before on this blog, the concept of race is a slippery one. Here's the basic definition.
race. In its biological sense, the term refers to a category of people distinguished by such inherited physical characteristics as skin color, certain facial features, and quality or form of hair. Race may also signify the prejudices, beliefs, and policies called racial or racist. Behind the term is an extremely vague, misleading, and intractable folk concept about how people are to be categorized.
I heard an NPR story the other night in which people whose ancestors came from the Middle East, who might be described as Arab-American, wondered where they fit in the categories listed on the census form. The general idea I got from the story was, "If we have to take the abuse, shouldn't our category at least be listed on the form?" Of course, anyone has the option of writing in "some other race." But I have a lot of questions about this item.First, is race really even the right term for the categories listed there? Aren't they more like nationalities or ethnicities than races (even if people in each of those categories do or may share some physical characteristics)? If your category is not listed, does it mean you're automatically white? I know some people who don't think of Jews as white.
Of course, anthropologists and other observers will point out that the categories listed for the race question have changed over the years the census has been taken. And if races are strictly defined by biology, how can the categories change? Oh, I know, it's all very complicated, and I probably haven't even asked the right questions in the right ways. I do like how post-modern the census people sound though, the way they frame the question by asking what person number 1 "considers [italics mine] himself/herself to be." What do you consider yourself to be?