What are you asking?

The Times had a story by Sam Roberts Sunday about racial distinctions among the changing U.S. population, particularly Hispanics who can check the box for “black” or “white” (or “mixed”). Roberts discusses how the definition of “white” has changed over the years.

As far as the census goes, this is a matter of self-identification. My boyfriend’s ancestors, for example, all came from Mexico to the United States. But he didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, and he has always thought of himself as white. (I consider him Californian.) Another friend of mine has a Dominican background, and once, when we were on the subject of race, I just asked him: “Are you black?” “I’m not white,” he answered.

I’m white. There’s no getting around it. My ancestors are German, and a little English. I’m pale. Yet Roberts reports that “Benjamin Franklin feared that his fellow white Pennsylvanians would be overwhelmed by swarthy Germans.” (Which, I believe, pretty much happened in Pennsylvania, and some of these were my ancestors.) But he also feared that his people would lose their language and government, and that didn’t happen; today Pennsylvanians of German background are sturdy English-speaking middle Americans.

So what’s with Hispanic? The U.S. government definition, Roberts says, cites origins in “Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Spanish-speaking Central and South America[n] countries and other Spanish cultures.” Does that include Spain? If so, what’s the difference between Spain and France or Italy? If not, why is “Spanish-speaking” so important? What makes Argentine culture, which is overwhelmingly nonindigenous, fall into the same category as Bolivian culture, while Brazilians, speaking Portuguese, are Other? What about Central and South Americans who speak Nahuatl and not Spanish at all? What is the point—aside from political advantage or disadvantage—of having the category “Hispanic” at all? Well, I suppose I’ve answered my own question.

What it comes down to is this: When people want to know whether you’re white, what is it they really want to know? What is the answer going to tell them? Isn’t the question “Are you one of us?” whether asked by someone white or nonwhite?

I realize that we can’t just declare a postracial world, but I wish every one of us—at least in America, land of the mongrel—could look far ahead and think of ourselves as contributors to a great mixed race of the future, when intermarriage will leave us all as confused and silly as Dr. Seuss’s sneetches. We don’t have to give up our own culture. We just won’t be able to hoard it.

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