Defining ourselves through the Census lens

The Census is coming. It will give us a statistical report of the country's population. Some people still base their impressions of diversity in this country on studies that used 1980 numbers. Because the Census figures are used for allocating federal funds as well as for social analysis, we should pay attention.

The Census, for the first time, does not restrict people to choosing one answer from the available list of which government label of their humanity applies to them. People can check more than one identity-heritage category; they can admit to multiple ancestries. This will be a test of people's knowledge of their backgrounds, their honesty, and their willingness to disclose information about their race, ethnicity, national origin, skin color, language group - which are not the same things.

Much of this is not clear or simple. Are people from Spain - other than the Basques, of course - Hispanic? Are Spanish-speaking people Hispanic? The people of the Philippines aren't. Are people from Hispaniola Hispanic? Haitians aren't. Are Haitians African-Americans? (This is a trick question.) Are people from Russia Russians? Jews, a separate nationality, are not. Chechens are not Russians - yet Russia is killing Chechens in a war to confirm that Chechens are Russian citizens.

A nation used to be one nationality. In parts of the world, it still is. Of course, the United States is a nation of all nationalities and cultures. This is our post-modern distinction. But we're not quite sure what to do about it. We keep having issues of democracy, inclusion, and equality. Heritage is what is inherited, but it gets complicated because we have various kinds of inheritances. Some are defined or discovered by a person in his or her lifetime, some are ascribed to her or him by others. Some change, some continue.

We are 275 million people, the third-largest country in the world. Almost all of us are displaced people. Except for descendants of indigenous people still living in their original homelands, none of us is where we used to be. We have moved, or our forebears did, from another continent - voluntary and involuntary travelers. Many Latinos are native to the territory that is now the US; they were here before the Anglos arrived to plant their European flags. There were intermarriages that some families don't acknowledge.

The story of population is full of complexity. This is the real Continental Divide of America.

Identity varies. People are different when they're home from when they're traveling or relocated. People are different at different periods in their lives - identities can come and go. You don't get to tell people who they are; they get to tell you. This Census is an exercise in people telling who they are.

People are several things at once, a prism or kaleidoscope of selves, a mixed bouquet. They can move among their identities, from one to another. If we want to know about ourselves and each other, we need to allow this movement, to tell its story. Diversity is really about giving people permission and safety to tell the truth about who they are.

The Census will give us plenty of numbers to analyze. When the results are reported over the next couple of years, we'll have a partial reflection of ourselves. It will be incomplete because there are many things the Census doesn't ask about or show any interest in - a wider, deeper range of diversities that accompanies each of us. It will be up to us to put the pieces together to get a whole picture.

The Census gives us percentages and fractions of 275 million. It will tell us about everyone, but it won't tell us about anyone.

*Harris Sussman is director of Worksways, a Boston company that conducts cultural-diversity workshops for schools, businesses, and other organizations.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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