Black and proud

I'm white, but I told the census I'm African-American. Here's why.

Published March 25, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

There must be something wrong with me, because when I got my census form last week, I dutifully filled it out. That is, until I came to the section on race. On an impulse, I said that our entire family was black.

We aren't. One look in the mirror confirms that. We are white as sheets, off-white sheets anyway, all four of us.

But I marked us black, perhaps committing a felony in the process. I can't tell you what the No. 1 reason was. But I had my reasons, and I will list them here, in no particular order:

1. First, the question bugged me. What do we say about ourselves when we check off a box like that? If you know nothing about me except that I'm white, or that I'm black, how does that help you understand me? In fact, doesn't it have the opposite effect -- painting me with vague, sweeping generalities that may or may not be true?

2. I did it out of old-fashioned liberalism, a hard habit to break. My understanding is that the census exists primarily to count citizens so that congressional districts may be accurately apportioned. What our color has to do with congressional district apportionment is, again, a mystery. But minorities get undercounted in the census, and are thus underserved in government outlays. So I thought I'd counterbalance an uncounted black family with our family. Sure, this means fewer benefits for my race, but I figured, hey, white people had a good year.

3. I always wanted to be black, like in the Lou Reed song. And this seemed like a much easier and more socially acceptable way to go about it than wearing makeup like John Howard Griffin in "Black Like Me." And less embarrassing than Al Jolson in "The Jazz Singer."

4. I thought it would do my family good. I told my family at supper we would be black from now on. Not that it would change anything in the way we go about our business. But somewhere, on a government mag-tape database somewhere, spinning around at a bazillion miles per second, we're black. My family didn't care.

5. I wanted to show solidarity with my extended family, which is diverse, including great people of numerous stripes and hues, including African-American. To my in-laws Kathy, Seantelle, Neecie, John and Marcus -- this is for you. And to my Uncle Jack, who used to do audiovisual work for Jesse Jackson, and now has a huge adoptive family of folks of color -- I haven't met you all, but I can tell you're terrific.

6. Patriotism. If I have heard anything repeated over and over all my life until it makes me sick, it is that you can be anything you want to be in America. You can be president or an astronaut or a cowboy. Well, at the moment I want to be black. So by what right can my country bar me from this ambition? I know this sounds silly, but I mean it. Isn't this the place that isn't supposed to put a ceiling on your ambitions?

7. Because, scientifically speaking, I am African-American, and so are you. According to the Eve Theory, which is more than just a theory, the entire human race appears to have originated in the DNA of a single woman who lived on the Olduvai Plain 1.5 million years ago. Every living person has DNA that can be traced to her. If that doesn't make us African, what could?

By Michael Finley

Michael Finley writes a weekly letter about change and the future at

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