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COLUMN: Let us label ourselves

Thursday, January 21, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 9:59 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What does an American look like? This is the third time I am asking this question. This is also a near impossible question to answer, but our government keeps trying.

This commentary is a continuation of two earlier discussions. The first, “Language limits the means to equality,” appeared in the Missourian in June 2007, where the question was publicly proposed. The column argued that Americans need to “stop identifying people by race, religion, gender and creed.”

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Commenters were curious about my position. Some argued that the use of race was necessary to maintain affirmative action or for pride in race and heritage. Some argued that I was right, but change would never come.

On Jan. 4, Missourian reporter Molly Harbarger's story, “Columbia school district starts multiracial identification,” concerned the Columbia School District’s annual demographic report. Harbarger wrote, “If a student's family refuses to complete the (demographic) survey, the school asks the student (about race and heritage). If that fails as well (the student refuses to give the information), a school administrator chooses an identity for the student based on observation.”  

The demographic choices are already determined, asking first if one is or is not of “Hispanic” heritage and then if one’s race is “white, black, Asian or Native American/Pacific Islander.” This means if the parents and child both refuse to identify race or heritage, a visual inspection results, identifying race and heritage in terms of skin color and surname.

This can and will result in incorrect identification of race and ethnicity. Many of Latin American and Spanish origins are multiracial, mixed European, African and original Central American race, as well as multicultural. Many “white” Americans are also of mixed race and culture, though some would outright deny it.

Examples are neither few nor far between. How do you identify my friend Roberta Sanchez, of Swedish heritage, married to a Caribbean of African origins? Or my granddaughter, who can claim Scottish, Irish, German, Cherokee, Hawaiian and Guamanian backgrounds, with some Jewish mixed in somewhere. The president is not “black,” but of mixed race and mixed heritage: Indonesian, Hawaiian and Middle American. Is he black because of his skin pigmentation? Does his name make him Middle Eastern?

Harbarger’s report resulted in a second commentary. “Rid Ourselves of the Race Card,” published Jan. 5 on my personal blog, again asked, “What does an American look like,” speaking again to the use of language, but focusing on the methodology of determining race and ethnicity for the purpose of government demographics.

Tom Gavin of the White House Office of Management and Budget said the Interagency Committee for the Review of the Racial and Ethnic Standards established the current language in 1997 after a four-year study. The committee included representatives of more than 30 federal agencies and included public comment and input. A review and re-evaluation of the language as used today will occur after the 2010 census.

Demographic language needs to stop identifying race in terms of skin color. In addition, with the increasing number of mixed cultural marriages through the centuries, especially in America, what percentage of one’s background needs to be Spanish in origin to declare “Hispanic” ethnicity? The question systematically denies the existence of the other ethnicities and cultural backgrounds that make up this country. Remove the question of heritage.

What does an American look like? Unfortunately, the answer is not (pardon the pun) black and white. America is a nation of immigrants, itself of mixed race and heritage. Yet, we cannot deny pride of race and heritage. Celebrations of ethnic, religious and secular holidays cannot and should not be eliminated. We can call ourselves anything we want. The government should not and does not have that luxury.

These changes will not eliminate discrimination based on skin color, heritage, religion, gender or any other reason in our imagination. However, it is a start and one that is morally correct for the United States.

David Rosman is an award-winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics.  Read his blog at InkandVoice.wordpress.com.  He welcomes your comments at ProfDave1011@netscape.net.


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