Just to add to the confusion over the definitions of race and ethnicity that I wrote about in my last post, here's an update from the U.S. Census Bureau:
First, they are proposing to drop the word "Negro" in favor of "black" or "African American." Now there's another question -- which is it? Do they mean the same thing? Is one term more acceptable than the other? During some recent research I found that for some people (and not all of them were white) there was confusion over racial descriptors. Some people thought "black" was actually a racial slur, and that they'd be accused of racism if they said it. They thought it was unfair that African Americans get to use the term "white," but whites, in their view, don't get to use the term "black." They saw this as just one indication of the way that whites are now victimized by "some people" who are "just too sensitive" and are using past racism as an excuse to advance unfairly. Funny what's under the surface - all we were talking about was the word "black," and a whole lot of anger bubbled up.
Anyway, back to the Census Bureau. They also want to add Hispanic as a category separate from black or white. This would make it the equivalent of a race. Is it? Or is it an ethnicity? That would mean that anyone who comes from a Spanish speaking country (because that's what "Hispanic" means) would not be considered white or black, no matter what they look like. Very messy stuff here.
Lastly, they want to add an opportunity for people to write in a racial category in order, they say, to "allow Middle Easterners and Arabs to specifically identify themselves." Hmm. So people who were, up until this point, considered white, would no longer be considered white. Not sure what's behind that.
All of this points to the fluidity of racial categories. With the stroke of a pen, someone's race can be changed. Weird, right? Does this mean that race doesn't matter? If racial categories can be changed so easily, what is the point of having them? Maybe we should just stop keeping track. Well, the problem with that is that in the U.S. race has always mattered and it still matters. Sadly, race has been a way to exclude people and we are still living with the legacy of that discrimination. Ignoring race is not the answer.
Perhaps the changes in the census give an opportunity for some to claim their national heritage with pride, and not to be lumped in with a group that they do not identify with. No problem there. But does it also means that fewer and fewer people are being allowed into the "white" category? And will this be cause for panic for some members of the historical majority as they see themselves slip into minority position? If these changes are made, will there be backlash of some kind? Time will tell, but I hope it doesn't tell with a bang.
FYI -- here's how another governmental agency, The National Center for Education Statistics, categorizes race: http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/reic/definitions.asp.