Census Interview

Mike Martin
4/27/1999
ES 114

The four census questions that I asked my interviewee were short in content and in number, but I obtained some valuable information. It seems that in the United States we are eager to classify people according to race. The census form suggests that people belong to one of five general categories. (White, Black, American Indian, Asian or Pacific Islander, or Other.) The form lacks a mixed-race category or an "I don\'t know category." I agree entirely with Webster\'s notion, "Perhaps race refers to that which is produced through racial classification. In other words, the fact that everyone seems to fit into a single racial category is the result of the system of racial classification used in the United States. It is not the objective placement of individual human beings in natural biological categories." (1993)
Through my interviewing, and the use of the U.S. Bureau of the Census questions, I in turn, created a racial identity for my classmate. The very first question that I asked, "What race do you consider yourself to be?" seemed to set the stage for a systematic classification. My classmate looked down at his arm, and remarked,
"Well I am obviously white, as far as I can see…" He was quick to point this obvious fact out to me. I mentioned the possibility of having some of the other races in his family heritage, but he assured me that he was almost sure that he was entirely European decent. I again mentioned the fact that Europe had a mix of heritage in its people, but once again he commented that this was not likely the case in his family. It seemed that he had thought about, examined, and even sorted this answer before I had even asked the question. I will admit that the Census form did not offer the interviewee many possible answers to this question, and it certainly did not offer him a choice of mixed heritage.
My interviewee answered the question of being from Hispanic/Spanish origin with a very definite "no." This question clearly ruled out any chance of mixed heritage. So it seems, that from the view of the government, my subject is strictly "white." These two questions clearly racialized him as white.
However, the very next question asked him to identify his ancestry or ethnic origin. My interviewee identified himself as German-Irish. It seemed that the more time he had to think about his family, the more diverse his answers would become. He constructed his identity with regards to what his parents had told him growing up. These were the predominant origins of his family; therefore this is what he identified with.
I discovered that this was a close-minded way of determining one\'s social identity. All kinds of problems began to surface. People seem to selectively forget little aspects which they may actually not want to identify with. My interviewee wanted nothing to do with being racially mixed. He wanted to take pride in being a majority German. The Irish that he mentioned was one relative on his mother\'s side of the family. "It really isn\'t that significant," were his exact words. The only way that he knew for sure that all this identification was correct, was through the words of this parents and grandparents. What if they had left little bits of information out of their stories? What if their parents had left little bits of information out of their stories? My point is that selective forgetting could magnify through generations.
I also should note that my interviewee took pride in describing his family life. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, but he seemed to use it in a different way. He used examples of his family\'s success and their commitment to bettering their lives as reasons for their success, or rather as an explanation for why they worked so hard. I sensed that he derived pride about his ethnicity from these examples that he provided. I don\'t see anything wrong with this type of self-esteem, but I thought that he explicitly identified with these factors.
My interview confirmed the interpertations of sociologist Sharon M. Lee. She points out that four dominant themes prevail in racial classification.
1. A preoccupation with skin color as the defining indicator of race.
2. A belief