The 2020 U.S. census results are finally being released after months of delay, and the question I hear everyone asking is, “Where’d all the white people go?”
Cities are filling up with more and more people, but as white people leave the rural areas for the big cities, the numbers shift, accounting for fewer white people and more people who marked their race as “other” or mixed.
This is causing confusion at state capitals all over the country as gerrymandering season gets underway. Are Others predominantly Republican or predominantly Democrat? How do politicians take advantage of a group they can’t classify?
It’s not only a political problem. Corporations might have to finally figure out how to market to the rising numbers of Others. What kind of music do Others enjoy? Do they like to dance? Dance what? If a restaurant wants to cater to Others, what sort of food would they serve? Do we cut the crust off the bread or leave it on? What holidays do they celebrate?
When I started at the University of Washington back in 1967, the university made me fill out a form asking nosy questions. They wanted my religious preference. They did this at the start of each and every quarter, so I got to answer the question multiple times. I thought I was being a rebel, answering the question with a different religion each time. I did the same when people asked what my sign was, answering according to mood: Gemini, Sagittarius, Aries, whatever. People would almost always say, “I knew it! I could tell just by looking at you!” I looked like a Gemini-Sagittarian-Aries-ish Leo.
Nowadays, if you asked me what my sign is, I might say, “I’m with stupid -->.”
It turned out I wasn’t being a rebel at all. After a couple of years, the university admin complained thousands and thousands of students had long been making up answers to the religious preference question. They stopped asking it because it was serving no purpose. All they had wanted, they said, was to know what sort of literature to mail us, directing us to religious communities in the area. We were expected to want to know where we could find the nearest priest, rabbi or minister appropriate to us.
They were certain there wasn’t really that much diversity on campus — certainly not that many Rastafarians. “Knock it off, kids.” They told us we were not being amusing. At all.
Another question being seriously asked now, due to the census results: Is claiming to be “Other” the new “I’m 1/16th Native American on my mother’s side” for white people? There never was any real point in claiming to be 1/16th Native American. You couldn’t get away with extolling your great-great-grandmother’s fry bread.
I think what’s happening is more complicated. I think it’s clear there’s an unequivocal growth in non-white populations and that white people could become a minority in America. This natural shift in demographics has fueled a lot of the fear and contributed to the white supremacy movement. But that in turn has worn most of the white population out. They pick “Other” because they don’t want the white supremacy literature; to purposefully call yourself white at this point can feel like picking a side. White people are only just now realizing they’ve already been doing that. On the other hand, it’s worth asking why it’s easier to assume the growing category of “Other” is actually white people mislabeling themselves rather than the simpler answer: There are more people in more diverse racial categories than there used to be.
Another factor is that people are more and more identifying according to ethnicity rather than race.
A lot of people think that’s wonderful. We’re moving away from thinking in terms of racial identities. But I’m not sure it’s a good thing at all. Racial identities are at least legally protected. If the country starts embracing cultural identities that could be great for neutralizing racial divisions, but doesn’t it just open up a new vista of cultural divisions, and us without maps to it?
In years past, you weren’t supposed to just check a box labeled “other,” you were expected to fill in a blank to say what kind of other you were. You couldn’t have a non-identity. It was unthinkable, and if you tried it, you could anger people. You’d be classed as a nonconformist at best and, at worst, antisocial and in need of correction. School counselors would call you into their offices to ask why you hate people.
I think it’s commendable that people are answering “Other” if they are avoiding thinking of themselves as a race, but I’m afraid that it is just the beginning of renewed obsessions with cultural identities which can only lead to entanglements we won’t be able to unravel.
Dr. Wes Browning is a one time math professor who has experienced homelessness several times. He supplied the art for the first cover of Real Change in November of 1994 and has been involved with the organization ever since. This is his weekly column, Adventures in Irony, a dry verbal romp of the absurd. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more of the Aug. 18-24, 2021 issue.