Commentary: More Americans Now Scoffing at Traditional Racial Definitions

Racial Definitions

Commentary: More Americans Now Scoffing at Traditional Racial Definitions

More Americans than ever before found the census’ racial classifications too restricting.

PUBLISHED ON : FEBRUARY 2, 2012 / 06:15 PM

In Brazil, where ethnic heritages from all around the world crash together in a jumbo nation with a deep history of racial mixing, defining race can be difficult if not impossible. In one study by the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística, the body responsible for the nation’s census, a question about what color people were drew 134 different answers. The subtext of all those responses isn’t that Brazilians don’t care about ethnicity — in fact, racism in Brazil is just as complicated as it is in America — but that Brazilians have simply learned to think outside of the standard ethnic boxes given elsewhere.


As America gets bigger and more diverse all the time and segregation decreases, it stands to reason that so, too, will our bloodlines diversify. America is becoming more accepting of interracial relationships, and now there are more races to choose from. Whereas we were once Black, white, Latino and Asian, today those lines are blurred in ways we’ve never known.


With that in mind, it makes a lot of sense that an increasing number of Americans, particularly Americans of color, are stepping outside of the box and identifying themselves as things other than Black, white or Latino.


The Associated Press writes

When the 2010 Census asked people to classify themselves by race, more than 21.7 million — at least 1 in 14 — went beyond the standard labels and wrote in such terms as "Arab," "Haitian," "Mexican" and "multiracial." … The figures show most of the write-in respondents are multiracial Americans or Hispanics, many of whom don't believe they fit within the four government-defined categories of race: white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander or American Indian/Alaska Native.


While it’s nice to see so many people taking their identities into their own hands, one troubling thing is that the United States may not be prepared for this. Census information is used to draw political districts and enforce anti-discrimination laws. With so many people contesting the traditional standards of race, America is stuck trying to make policy based on its obviously outdated classifications. The struggle here lies in trying to make America catch up with Americans. That’s not going to be easy.   


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(Photo:  Brand New Images / Getty Images)

Written by Cord Jefferson


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