My two children were young in 1990 when I received my decennial census form to fill out. They are biracial, I am White and their father is Black. According to the census directions, I was required to pick only one race for them. Wanting to do the right thing, I called the Census Bureau. They put me on hold repeatedly trying to find an answer. A supervisor got involved.
Finally, the United States Census Bureau employee said, “You should put down the race of the mother for your children.”
“But that can’t be right,” I answered. “They are not just my race. They are biracial.”
“Well, they can’t be.”
“I beg your pardon, but they are,” I replied.
“Not to us,” the man answered.
“Excuse me, but why should they arbitrarily be classified as the mother’s race and not the father’s?” I asked, exasperated.
“Because in cases like this,” he answered in a very hushed voice, “you always know for sure who the mother is, but not the father.” That conversation caused me to seek a solution that would allow my children to embrace their entire heritage and not have to choose between their mother and their father. The organization Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally) was born.
It’s been a 30 year battle, but when you get your census forms next year, one instruction will be very different. You will be allowed to check as many races as you want for yourself or your children. My new book, Born Biracial: How One Mother Took on Race in America talks about the battle I waged and so much more.
Frankly, I got tired of hearing that “mixed-race” children were “mixed-up” and didn’t know who they were. They did not automatically have low self-esteem just because they were of more than one race. They certainly shouldn’t be subjected to bullying or any other type of bad behavior by other children or adults. They needed good role models and people who stood up for them. They deserved better. Along with a cadre of amazing volunteers, we set about to right the wrongs.
This is not to say that every multiracial child should not choose to be one race, but it should be their right to self-identify racially and ethnically as they desire. It used to be OK for census takers, teachers, and medical personnel to guess the race of a person based on their “knowledge and observation” of the person. We got that changed, too.
My story deals with race, but it’s also a primer for those who want to make a change for the better in our society. I urge you to learn from my successes and failures and become an advocate for all of our children.
You can get involved with the 2020 Census now by contacting your county or city and asking who is in charge of getting a complete census count. Committees are forming and could use your help.
Contact: Susan Graham
Author of Born Biracial: How One Mother Took on Race in America