Shoulder to Shoulder: What are you?

As I reviewed all of the options for “race” listed on the 2020 Census form, my fingers hovered over the keyboard. There were significantly more selections than in the very first U.S. census, held in 1790. That census only counted free white males, free white females, other free persons, and slaves – the category describing my paternal ancestors. Gone, too, are outdated identification labels used in later censuses, like “quadroon”, “octoroon”, “mulatto” and “lunatic” – as well as instructions to census takers to make visual assessments based on the “percentage of blood” from a particular race. The term “Negro” wasn’t dropped from the Census form until 2014. But today a person may choose multiple categories from the more than 20 options available.

At the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, we know that census data is essential in informing how funding is distributed equitably for the future and in analyzing if we have made an impact where it was needed most in the past. According to the United States Census Bureau’s official website, “…the results of the census help determine how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding, including grants and support to states, counties and communities are spent every year for the next decade. It helps communities get a fair share for schools, hospitals, roads, and public works. That funding shapes many different aspects of every community, no matter the size, no matter the location.”

With Lillian Jackson Lee, May 2015, @Mason-Wright, Springfield, MA

That the racial and gender identity categories in the Census form are more expansive represents the constantly changing world, nation, and community around us. It’s perhaps still an incomplete and imperfect list, with “White” still sitting comfortably at the very top, but it’s come a long way from the days of my late grandmother, Lillian Jackson Lee. Born in 1910, my grandmother was a descendant of Primus Mason, a prominent businessman and one of Springfield’s earliest formerly enslaved people. During the many Sunday afternoons I spent with her, I would listen intently to her descriptions of the community where she grew up. She shared with me how when the Census takers came to 51 Monroe Street during her childhood, they made a visual assessment of her parents and grandparents. Confused by their light skin in a “black” neighborhood, they would inevitably ask, “What are you?”

This made me think about how data can do a good job in describing “what” we are, but not “who.” When people ask me “what I am,” I know what they are getting at. I usually respond, “I am a bi-racial woman, the sixth generation of a black family from Springfield, with a black father and white mother (who is incidentally not an American citizen and keeps her “legal alien resident” card close at hand at all times).” I am deeply proud of my roots and the glorious combination of history and race that lives within me, but I know it’s not always visible in the way society tends to view identity.

At this stage of my life, I am well prepared for the follow-up questions: “Were you adopted?” “Where did you go to school? (You are so articulate!)” “Was your father ‘fully’ black?” The way I look allows me much more access than members of my own family and members of the communities that CFWM serves. I am conscious of this privilege and strive to use it for good in my role as Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees as I take part in probing the complex conversations about identity, in listening with discipline and intention to those without access, and to embracing and celebrating our differences rather than trying to reduce identity down to one or (at most) two categories.

The work we have undertaken at the Community Foundation as expressed by our strategic vision – to increase equity and opportunity so that all who live in our three counties have access to a satisfying quality of life – requires that we deeply understand both the “what” and the “who” within our own organization and in our region. It’s up to us to reach out, show up, and provide sustainable support. If we only consider the data without the first-person narratives and involvement of those who bear these labels, we will fall far short of our mission.

So how did I handle that Census form question? Long accustomed to selecting “other”, I instead proudly checked both black and white. That simple action made me look forward to continuing the Foundation’s journey to support equity and inclusion for all identities.

Karin L. George


What Census Calls Us, Pew Research Center, 2020
Race and Multiracial Americans in the U.S. Census, Pew Research Center, 2015