Singing the Census Form Blues

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Getty Images

"I am black. I did not appreciate the black, the African-American and Negro," the caller to C-SPAN's Washington Journal told U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves last month, "…The word Negro really hurt my feelings … that to me is racist."


Groves, who appeared as a guest on the show that day, promptly apologized to the listener who seemed more than just angry, but generally hurt. He told the caller that the term "Negro" had been added back to the census form to appease 56,000 Americans who had not only checked the option that best reflected their ethnicity, but also wrote "Negro" in, right below. According to Groves, 50 percent of those who responded that way were less than 45 years of age.

"The intent of every word of the race and ethnicity question was to be as inclusive as possible," Groves explained to the caller that day, "so that all of us could see a word here that rings a bell for us."

I kept Groves' explanation in mind when I opened my own letter from the Census Bureau last month. I told myself that the form was important for a number of reasons, that it was about more than just the government getting to get all up in my business. I gave myself a little lecture about how it would cost the United States more than $50 to come out to the house and collect the data on my fam, when a stamp only costs $.44. How it was a misdemeanor to ignore the form, a crime punishable by law. And for good measure, one last little lecture about the importance of not mailing it back by the actual deadline of April 1, instead of on C.P. time.

But none of that stopped me from wanting to sucker punch someone for putting the word "Negro" on there.

"What is person No. 1's race?" the form wanted to know. It didn't take too long to find my options: Black, African American, or what I like to call "the other N-word." Immediately, I started playing a mental game of six degrees of separation from Robert Groves, U.S. Census Bureau director. I wanted his cell number just to ask one simple question: "Um, about question No. 9—can I check the box, but just cross out the word I don't like? You know, the one that makes me think I should enter through the back door, and promptly begin cleaning house for Rich Whitefolks? Yes sir, that's his real name."

And I'm sure Mr. Groves might not have appreciated me interrupting his already busy day, but we're all busy, aren't we? I resented the extra time I spent thinking about why the other N-word was on there in the first place. That's all well and good if folks wrote it in 2000, but that was before we had an African American president. Now, in 2010, the term looks like the addition was made at the last minute — e-mailed by the ornery ghost of Strom Thurmond.


I left the form on the counter and sulked around the kitchen for a few minutes, mumbling to myself. And why can't I just submit the form online? I sulked. But before I could climb up on my soapbox (more like a plastic children's stepstool from IKEA), my husband reminded me I should probably save my annoyance for something else.

And he was right. That was the last thing I wanted. Technically, Americans have until April 12. (The real deadline was April Fools' Day.) Data from returned forms will be compiled until May 1, 2010. After that, the ball's in the Census Bureau's court. Census Bureau workers will make home visits to collect data in person through the summer of 2010.


While our empty-nester next-door neighbors would probably welcome the Census Bureau workers in, let them set a spell, and possibly even offer them a glass of sweet tea, the last thing I want is to guess who's coming to dinner. I'm sure the 2010 Census workers are lovely people, but I'd be more inclined to open the door for Jehovah's Witnesses selling Girl Scout cookies.

My ambivalence about the "home visits" might be part of my DNA. Since 1790, African Americans have had Census workers stopping by the house, asking questions, eyeballing their families and marking down what they saw. In many census records, an "N" for Negro or "M" for mulatto stood next to African-American names in the race category. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, but it definitely wasn't the most accurate. In many cases, entire families could change from "M" to "N" and sometimes even back again each decade, depending on who was working that day (and perhaps who in the family had been out in the sun?) Such was the case on both sides of my family. According to Census records on Ancestry, my 96-year-old grandmother was mulatto throughout her childhood, and then Negro as an adult. But as far as she's concerned, she's been black her entire life.


I'm not so worried about what racial designations a Census Bureau worker would use for my family, even though my 4-year-old twins still get stares from strangers who wonder if my daughter is black and my son is white. I just don't feel like moving their toys off the couch so a complete stranger can sit down and ask their mother "and just who do you think you are?"

Hopefully, by the time Census 2020 rolls around, the words "black" and "African American" will stand alone in solidarity—not needing an outdated term to restate the obvious. Perhaps there will even be a new word that more accurately describes the American descendants of African slaves.


Until then, I've decided to live with my Negro problem. I figure if I ignore it long enough, it will finally go away.

Meera Bowman-Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root, and can be found on Twitter here: @bowmanjohnson.


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