(Note: This column won a first-place in the Virginia Press Association awards for the year 2000.)
I've been white all my life.
Unlike my friend Sarah, who, when we sang Beatles' songs together on the school bus in third grade, was "colored." Those who knew better called her Negro. In high school, she was Afro- American.
By the time Sarah reached her mid-20s, she was black, then in her late 30s, African American. In some circles, she is a "woman of color."
Being white is so generic.
Look at the form for Census 2000, item 9. Look at the choices of race:
White; Black, African American, or Negro; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian Indian; Chinese; Filipino; Japanese; Korean; Vietnamese; Native Hawaiian; Guamanian or Chamorro; Samoan; other Pacific Islander.
Question 8 asks if the person is SpanishHispanicor Latino. If so, the choices are: Mexican, Mexican American, or Chicano; Puerto Rican; Cuban; or other.
Everyone has specific choices -- some, not only of "race," but vocabulary preference -- except whites.
It doesn't seem fair -- everyone else is referred to by their people group, their ancestral lineage, their culture of origin, but me? I'm tagged by my skin color. Lumped with all the other white-skinned people on the planet.
Actually, the census question has nothing to do with race. If it was, the choices would be Caucasoid, Negroid or Mongoloid, according to the definition in Webster's New World Dictionary.
Race is inappropriate when applied to cultural, religious or national groups, says the Columbia Concise Encyclopedia. The only reference to race on the census form is Negro.
Though the first option -- white -- should set the precedent for skin color, it does not. If it did, the other choices would be black, yellow, red . . . brown? The only group identified strictly by skin color is white.
Unlike whites, black-skinned people have the option of identifying with their ancestors' cultural group (African) as well as their current national group (American), or with their race (Negro).
The remaining choices are national and cultural groups. At first I thought the census was trying to get a handle on where immigrant groups have settled. If that's the case, don't the white immigrants matter? What about all the Eastern Europeans that have settled in the U.S. in the past 10 years? What about those from the Middle East?
Perhaps I am showing my ignorance. Obviously, dividing white-skinned people into sub-groups serves no purpose.
I sometimes wonder how identifying myself more specifically would change my concept of myself and my relationship with other whites.
My multiple-great grandfather, Paul Sandstrom, worked his way from Sweden to New York City on a merchant ship in the early 1800s. Thus I could identify myself as a Nordic American.
But I wonder: Would I feel a kinship with other Nordic Americans? Less connection with white-skinned people of differing origins? Should I learn more about the culture and customs of the Nordic people in order to attain a stronger sense of heritage and identity?
It's been so many generations since my grandfather migrated here. The only reminder I have of my Swedish heritage is my big rectangular head.
I'll be walking through a fine department store when I notice a rack of gorgeous women's hats. I always fall in love with one. But when I try it on, it perches atop my head rather than sliding down to where it belongs.
"Oh man, I wish my head wasn't so big," I sigh, wishing I inherited my skull genes from my mother.
Mom's side of the family tree would be even more difficult to identify with. The Thompsons immigrated to the New World from England in the 1600s.
According to my old Encyclopedia International, the ethnic group originating in the British Isles is properly known as Atlanto-Mediterranean. Hmmm.
To be fair to both parental lineages, I should be inclusive.
If my answer to question 9 on Census 2000 was consistent with the other choices of "race," I'd check the box that says "Some other race." And write in the blank: Nordic Atlanto-Mediterranean American.
Who do I think I'm kidding? I'm just a white girl.