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Checking the ‘Race’ Boxes

Applying for a social security card for my daughter, my hand stops over the voluntary ethnicity section. I know that these categories have changed over time (the boxes used to say ‘free’ or ‘slave’ or ‘mulatto’) and reflect a global system of white supremacy.

While I know this history, when I fill out forms for myself I rarely think twice. But this time I am answering for my daughter. I check the boxes for “White” and “Hispanic” and then I stop.

What is the government going to do with this information? Will my daughter be targeted if I make her visible to the government in this way? I think of “Operation Wetback” in the 1950s, of the ICE raids in Portland in 2007, of the families who are still, this moment, in danger.

Then I think about affirmative action programs and college scholarships. I think about my hometown near LA and its increasing Latino majority.  Isn’t it important to be visible?

I’m acutely aware that all of my angst is about the box labeled “Hispanic.” I don’t feel any uncertainty about checking the box labeled “White.” I’ve never had to think about these boxes before and how they relate to me or my family. There was never a box for “German-American” or “Rural Poor White Class.”

If I refuse to give this information, does that mean that I am ashamed of my daughter’s heritage? Paranoid about racism? Trying to opt out?

As I reflect, I begin to wonder if I am using my daughter to examine my own complicity and place in the system. Is that fair to her or helpful to me? I don’t know.

After much internal debate, I print out a new application. This time, I don’t check any boxes. I leave them all blank.

What do you do when you fill out these types of forms? I’d love to hear your thoughts or insights.

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3 Responses to “Checking the ‘Race’ Boxes”

  1. Melissa says:

    I usually check the “white” and “American Indian/Alaska Native” boxes. Sometimes I only check the “American Indian” box. Sometimes there is a vague “mixed race” box and sometimes when I feel vague about myself, I check that. Sometimes I want to scratch out the boxes and write the truth: Umatilla, Walla Walla, Niimipuu, Sac & Fox, Ottawa, Potawatomi, French, Irish, Scandanavian of unknown origin, possibly Dutch, and maybe Klamath/Modoc depending on the family member you ask. At the very least I want to list my Native affiliations. But, the real truth is that I hate these boxes. I don’t fit in any of the boxes. These boxes do not tell the stories of who I am or where I come from.

  2. Diana V-B says:

    Hm. I unthinkingly check “White.” No longer. Thanks again for pushing me out of my unthinkngness!

    Due to consciousness on another front, I’ve taken to NOT marking the Male Female boxes.

    So, I’d echo that boxes don’t tell our stories!!

  3. Ls Folly says:

    It’s insulting to have to choose only 1 of your heritages and leave the others out. It’s painful and leaves one with so many questions as to how that info will be used. Yes, in future your daughter might be eligible for race-based scholarships, then again, her group may be the majority by then. So generally I think that every time the government gives they extract more so when I don’t have option I give the colored choice – but I have learned that in legal matters Hispanic can claim minority or white depending on what works. In a former workplace an NDN woman filed against Hispanic management for creating racially hostile work environment (including to whites of course.) Hispanic management got the government job to fulfill legally mandated racial requirements – so even though their race is what put them there – when it comes to legal action they suddenly say “I am white what are you talking about?” So even the employer records from first date of employment calls them minority and then legally they can refute the charges by calling themselves white. WOW. Can’t fight that really.

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