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Who Are We? We're Finding Out Together

Therrious Davis for NPR

Once a decade, every household in the United States is required by law to participate in the U.S. census. For many people, most of the questions on the census seem pretty straightforward: How many people live in a household? Is the household rented or owned? But things get a little trickier when people are asked to identify their race.

Throughout the month of April, Code Switch will be looking at some of the complicated questions that arise when we're all, collectively, asked to think about our racial identity.

There are 15 boxes that people can choose from on the census form, and within some of those categories, respondents have the option to get more granular. They can specify that they're Black Jamaican, for instance, or a white person of Serbian descent. People are also allowed to check as many boxes as they want, including "some other race."

But despite the many options, we know that people's identities rarely fall neatly into these boxes. For instance — where do Middle Easterners belong? When collecting data on race and ethnicity, federal agencies, including the Census Bureau, are required to categorize people of Middle Eastern descent as white, but we heard from one Arab American woman who said that is not how she identifies. (The Census Bureau had considered adding a category for people of Middle Eastern and North African descent but decided against it in 2018 because the bureau concluded more research was needed.)

Then there's the question of Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin. It's not considered a race on the census so Latinx people can choose to identify from a range of racial identities. But growing confusion about that question has lots of Latinx peopledebating what race to choose instead. It also underscores how fraught some of these categories really are. After all, "Mexican" by itselfwas a racial category on the 1930 census. Ten years later, it had disappeared.

The census helps us understand how race has morphed and changed throughout U.S. history. In 1890, when the one-drop rule — in which even one black ancestor meant a person was considered black — informed much of racial thinking, "mulatto," "quadroon," and "octoroon" were all listed as categories. Until 1940, "Indians not taxed" were not included in the total population counts used to redistribute each state's share of seats in the U.S. Congress. "Hindu" became a racial category on the 1920 census and was gone again by 1950.

We're wading into territory that's as complicated as the racial history of the United States, which the census has tried to make sense of since its inception. We look at dark chapters in census history that have led to decades of wariness about giving detailed personal information to the government. We'll also revisit an extremely controversial treaty between the U.S. government and the Cherokee Nation, which simultaneously gave the nation representation in the U.S. Congress and led to the Trail of Tears.

We're also questioning the very nature of what it means to identify as part of a racial group. We look at an effort in Puerto Rico to persuade more of the island's residents to self-identify as black, after a longstanding denial of African heritage. Then, we'll grapple with the fraught question underlying a lot of debates about reparations: What does it mean to be black? Later, we'll talk to a filmmaker who thinks a lot about his relationship to whiteness, and how other white people think about it, too.

We'd love to hear your thoughts about the census and race, and how you're filling it out for your household. How are you going to identify your race and ethnicity, and what does it mean to you to do that? Email us at CodeSwitch@npr.org with your thoughts — we look forward to hearing from you.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.
Natalie Escobar is an assistant editor on the Code Switchteam, where she edits the blog and newsletter, runs the social media accounts and leads audience engagement. Before coming to NPR in 2020, Escobar was an assistant editor and editorial fellow at The Atlantic, where she covered family life and education. She also was a ProPublica emerging reporter fellow, where she helped their Illinois bureau do experimental audience engagement through theater workshops. (Really!)