Telling Stories, Changing the Conversation

Can we claim Wakanda? Race, writings, and the 2020 Census | Think Piece

in Feature/Government & Policy/Highlights/Race and Ethnicity by

But in order to understand the present state of the U.S. Census, we must also understand its past. From 1790 to 1870, U.S. Marshals collected Census data. From 1880-1950,  specially trained Census takers replaced the marshals. Census questionnaires were first mailed out beginning with the 1960 Census, while the 2020 population will be counted mainly using online surveys. In short, from 1790 to 1950, other people collected Census data instead of it being self-reported, meaning the race of each respondent was up for interpretation.

Young women working as a U.S. Census taker in 1920. Washington, D.C., vicinity.

Gail Lukasik, a seventy-two year old professor and mystery writer from Cleveland, Ohio, could attest to this. In 1995, she discovered the 1900 Louisiana Census listed her maternal grandfather as “B” (for Black) while the 1930 Louisiana Census listed him as “W” (for White). With this discovery, she realized that her grandfather was truly Black, but a Census taker in 1930 assumed he was white because of his light skin. Lukasik made this discovery while researching her mother’s life. In doing so, she learned that her mother never mentioned this black ancestry, but pretended to be white for her entire adult life. She passed as white, which she recently discussed with Megyn Kelly.

Passing occurs when someone pretends to occupy an identity that he or she is not. With a slip of the hand of a Census worker in the first half of the twentieth century, a light-skinned Black person could easily be rendered “White,” thus legally being allowed some of the privileges of Whiteness in jumping the color line. Historically, passing has referred to racial passing, but as the book, We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, makes clear, the lines of religion, sexuality, and class are as fluid today as racial boundaries have been historically.

We wear the mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile

– by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Edited by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page, We Wear The Mask is a collection of first-person essays, wherein each person writes with insight and precision about his or her time passing as someone else. The role education plays in passing is particularly striking – such as with the guy who passes as American Indian to get into college, or the woman who remembers her classmates not inviting her to their birthday parties, or the accomplished college professor who feels the need to pass because the imposter syndrome still bedevils him.

The most provocative aspect of this collection is the need for passers to “Other,” encapsulated by Gabrielle Bellot, a black transsexual man who verbalized his hatred for gay people in order to posture. He rationalizes it as “I Othered him. I Othered myself by Othering the queerness in him.” We might call this overcompensation, as he sought to hide an aspect of his own identity by expressing hatred of someone of that identity, but it is more accurate to see him as wanting to define himself against someone else, to prove his own humanity and subjectivity. According to Toni Morrison, this is our human tendency to define the Other to juxtapose who we are and highlight our own characteristics.

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