Otherness in the U.S. Census: musings while eating a brownie

    Photo courtesy of the United States government.

    Here’s an interesting kind of racial categorization: the census. I was a little perplexed last month, returning to Allison from a semi-strenuous workout at Blomquist, when three census takers implored me to fill out their form. Like a smaller-scale and organic version of the witch’s cottage in Hansel and Gretel, the census takers’ table boasted a spread of Whole Foods brownies, cupcakes, and cookies, most likely to tempt students into filling out the one-page survey for some grander statistical purpose.

    Brownies in exchange for the ticking-off of two boxes — “white” and “Korean.” I gladly ticked off, taking a bite of a crumbly treat, and glanced at the census takers. The first– authoritative, standing tall, embodying a duty-bound sense of responsibility, looking like he’d probably have been a member of the Pony Express had he been born a hundred and fifty years earlier. The second — an older man, propped up behind the stash of treats, tapping a pen against a clipboard in a soothing series of rhythms. The third — a middle-aged woman, whose patience manifested itself through her steady posture and constantly dimpling cheeks. They’d been there all day. I munched and swallowed, and returned my glance to the clipboard on my lap.

    They weren’t asking for much. Their overwhelming harmlessness had me wondering why a census taker in Clay County, Kentucky, appeared to have been killed in 2009, the word “fed” dashed across his chest in red paint like a war wound. Or so I imagined; I’d never seen a photo of the crime.

    The ticking off of neat blue boxes took me two minutes, not even ten. Every ten years, a ten-minute census. Every ten cupcakes, ten census forms filled out. It was so gloriously decadal, so satisfyingly formulaic. I swallowed the last crusty edge of my brownie and wondered if the federal government had paid for the sweets, or if it was just Northwestern egging us on to fulfill our responsibilities as citizens.

    One of the blue boxes wasn’t very politically correct.

    But its lack of subtlety (Negro — wasn’t that a derogatory, not to mention outdated, word?) wasn’t quite what irked me.

    I don’t inherently mistrust the government. Maybe I should, but at that moment, I was sure that the brownie I chewed on was as innocuous as a potted plant. The census takers themselves appeared to be fine, upstanding citizens. No Big Brother aura pervaded the lobby. The room’s silence — punctuated by the occasional scratches of my pencil’s tip on paper — was not that of “an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention,” as Conrad so eloquently puts it in Heart of Darkness.

    It was, I realize, the definitiveness of the whole thing that seemed so strange to me; specifically, that one can be “Guamanian or Chamorro,” one or the other, but that one cannot transcend the two. And anyone who doesn’t fit in these neat compact little squares is, rather dismissively, of “some other race,” and must “Print race” in nineteen squares. The sense of Otherness is so apparent here: “Other Asian” and “Other Pacific Islander,” diverge from square one — “White” — and are visually demoted to the bottom of the list.

    My aversion to the unapologetic blue box isn’t grounded in rational, coherent thought, exactly. I’m sure most people ticked off their boxes without a worry. Yet here I am, inarticulately pondering the form more than a month later.

    * * * * * *

    I handed my census form to Pony Express and smiled.

    “I heard a census taker was killed in Kentucky,” I said, as nicely as I could. “Isn’t that crazy?”

    As it turns out, the man’s death was later ruled a suicide, but that didn’t stop most people from wondering at the extreme anti-government sentiment that exists in parts of our country.

    In response, Pony Express went on the defense.

    “Some people mistrust us because to them, we represent the government,” he said, unsmiling, officious. I nodded as quickly as I could. “What they don’t realize is that if we see them engaging in illegal activity, we can’t report it. We census takers have taken an oath,” he said. I nodded again, almost expecting him to thump his chest with these last words. Then I grabbed another brownie and said goodbye.


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