Line on the Color Bar

After reading my blog post on people asking about my race, one of the veterans in my writing group asked how often this sort of thing happened. Here’s a repost from 2008, written before the release of the 1940 census.

When I was a teenager, white folks often asked, “What are you?” Depending on my mood, I’d say, “Human. What are you?” “Black.”  “What difference does it make?” “Why do you want to know?”

People don’t ask as often any more – probably because people who look like me are more visible. I do  still get people talking to me in Spanish and looking shocked when I tell them I don’t understand – in standard American English.

Acceptance is a good thing, but it seems the census bureau is still trying to confuse the issue. The latest is a report that whites will be in the minority eight years earlier than originally projected, and that minority populations, with Hispanics in the lead, will outnumber people who identify themselves as white. (Adding to the confusion, of course, is that some Hispanics consider themselves white.)

Questions about race and color have changed in every census year. The first, conducted in 1790, had categories for free whites, slaves, and all other free persons. Until 1850 only heads of households were named and the broad categories stayed. From then on, the race designations illustrate changing attitudes.
1850 – black, colored, mulatto, white
1860 – black, mulatto, white
1870 – black, Chinese, white, mulatto, Native American, white
1880 – same as 1870, plus Mexican and Asian (separate from Chinese)
1890 (only a fragment survived a fire) – colored, mulatto, white
1900 – Asian, Black, Chinese, Colored, Filipino, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Mulatto, Quadroon, White
1910 – Omitted Asian and added to the 1900 list Arab, Greek, Hawaiian, Hindu, Korean, Malaysian, Negro (in addition to Black), Other Caucasian, Polynesian, Puerto Rican, Samoan and Spanish
1920 – Asian, Black, Chamorro (Guam), Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Japanese, Latino, Mulatto, Native American, Polynesian, White
1930 – omitted Mulatto and Octoroon and added Portuguese

Not all the census takers got with the program. In 1930, someone changed the designation for people from Portugal from “Port” to “W” in the census for Old Saybrook, Connecticut. The instructions were clear about what races or colors were to be abbreviated and what were to be written out in full. The instructions also said that blacks and mulattoes were now all to be considered Negroes, a change from 1920, when Blacks were Negroes of full blood and mulattoes were Negroes with “some portion” of white blood.

Confusion reigned in most years for both sides of my family. My father’s father changed race from black (1860 slave schedule) to mulatto (1880) to white (1910) to mulatto (1920). Color him missing in 1870 and 1900, and dead before 1930. My father’s mother appears in 1880 as mulatto.

My mother’s father’s family in New Jersey were “free colored persons” in 1840 and then black in every census until 1910 when they became mulatto and then Negro in 1930.

The James family morphed from black (1870 and 1900) to mulatto (1880 and 1910). The part of the family that stayed in Hartford was black in 1920 and Negro in 1930, while my grandmother and her sisters, living in Old Saybrook were mulatto in 1920 and Negro in 1930. And finally my great-grandmother, Anna Houston James, was white in 1860, not to be found in 1870, and mulatto in 1880.

A columnist for an Ohio newspaper notes that the census bureau’s race designations may have initiated and contributed to the separation of the races and to our undying awareness of those separations. Or it may be that the bureau picked up on the division and that the designations just reflect what’s happening in society.

I would say the government in this instance is a follower, not a leader. After all, it took more than 200 years to have the option to check more than one box for race, even as the designations Mulatto, Quadroon and Octoroon had faded into the past (pun intended).

Now the bureau relies on us to define ourselves in as many ways as we want but still puts us in a minority category if we check white plus something non-white. For 2020, I’ll stick with the program and color myself Black or whatever is closest.

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