Last week, Melissa Harris-Lacewell wrote an insightful column, "Black by Choice," about President Obama’s having checked the box marked "Black, African American or Negro" on his Census form. As she notes, despite the way his complex heritage both disrupts "standard definitions of blackness" and creates "a definitional crisis for whiteness," in American culture "having a white parent has never meant becoming white" if one also has an African-descended parent.
When I read her piece, I was in a Columbia University faculty lounge, half listening to interesting people grumble interestingly about being asked to fill out another kind of census: the voluntary questionnaire, including self-identification of race and ethnicity, requested by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. This accounting, which gathers a broad spectrum of information about colleges and universities, is compiled by the Department of Education. The results are public record–the most ubiquitous reference to them being the profiles one finds in the myriad guides for prospective students. The racial part of the inquiry also grows out of the monitoring of federal grants: schools that are entirely segregated by race raise concerns about eligibility for federal funds. In other words, it is a questionnaire framed by the need to remediate historical separation, inequity and stigma.
What piqued my attention to these half-heard conversations was their inverse relation to the phenomenon of Obama’s "choice." Everyone but me in the lounge was white, or would pass as such. But not one of them wanted to choose "white" as their identity. They were putting down descriptors like "mutt" or "human-colored" or "neutral" or "sallow." They were completely squeamish about describing themselves in racial or ethnic terms, and I was curious enough about the varied reasons for that resistance to join in the conversation.
For one person, it was a matter of science: "Race has no biological basis!" To him, it seemed race was all about bad biology; the power of it as a demographic and social force seemed entirely "imaginary." Another colleague described herself as Jewish: "I could never see myself as just white." When I asked her why she didn’t just write in "Jewish," she acknowledged a deep ambivalence about putting that on any official form. She’s the child of Holocaust survivors, and although she said she doesn’t distrust the US government or think that this form–used to patrol against discrimination–bears any resemblance to a yellow star, she admitted that she remains hesitant and torn. Yet another colleague objected to the question of race being asked under any circumstances, even acknowledging its power as a social construction: "I’m colorblind," he insisted. "Buff-beige is a color," I pointed out, referring to what he’d written in the box. "We’re never going to get past all this, unless we resist the usual categories," he said.