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Column: Identity isn’t always black and white
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

The Democratic ticket now features a Black woman for vice president. Or is she an African American? Or Indian? Or South Asian American? 

Before I lose you, this is not a column about politics. Like Kamala Harris or don’t, vote for her or don’t vote for her – that's fine. This is a column about the knots we tie ourselves in trying to make race, ethnicity and identity simpler than it is. 

Kamala Harris’ father is Jamaican and her mother Indian. She was born in California and as such is a natural-born U.S. citizen. 

Many Americans would likely call Harris an African American, but that’s turned into quite a debate. Did she descend from enslaved Africans? Maybe not. Does part of her ancestry trace back to Africa? Probably. Can she rightly claim to be African American? Depends on who you ask. Do most see her face and immediately put her in that box? I would bet so. 

Which boxes does she check on forms asking about her race and ethnicity? I don’t know, but she likely checks at least two, given her biracial identity.  

People’s experience of their race, ethnicity and identity can be varied depending on many factors. Take cross-cultural adoption, for example, or how skin color is viewed by the majority culture regardless of ancestry. 

I’m 100% northern European -- mostly British, with some Irish and German mixed in there. Checking the “white” box is a no-brainer. I’d argue Russian ancestry is quite different than British ancestry, but we’re all “white.” 

When I received my first official census in 2010 as a married woman, the boxes got a little more complicated as I answered questions about my husband. 

By all accounts, he’s white. But there was this question: “Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin?” 

Hmm. He doesn't speak Spanish. But his last name is Casas. He doesn’t “look” Latino, but his grandfather’s family traces to the border of Mexico and Texas. He’s more Irish than anything. But he does have some Native American and Spanish blood. 

My husband just shrugged; he was of no help answering the question. 

After that question, comes the one for race. We’re checking the white box here, but for those who clearly identify as Latino, 2020 lingo would denote them as “people of color” or even more specifically as “brown.”  

Of course, that doesn’t mean all Latinos identify as people of color; depending on what part of Central or South America they come from, many consider themselves white, which adds another layer of complexity to racial and ethnic identity in America. 

So, what is Person 1’s race? The census has several options, including “White” and “Black or African American,” but there is no “brown.” 

Census.gov provides this information: The category “White” includes all individuals who identify with one or more nationalities or ethnic groups originating in Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.  

I’m not sure that helps when your family has been in Mexico and Texas for centuries. But the section for “American Indian” doesn’t seem to fit either. 

“The category ‘American Indian or Alaska Native’ includes all individuals who identify with any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintain tribal affiliation or community attachment.” 

My husband is more American Indian than I am – which isn’t saying much since I have not a drop of Cherokee despite the family lore – but in any case, no one is maintaining any tribal affiliation.  

Census.gov states that answers should be based in how a person identifies, and it goes on to note that the categories reflect “social definitions in the U.S. and are not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.” 

We identify as white, non-Latino. And walking into any Latino grocery store or ice cream shop in Gainesville will quickly remind us of that fact as the cashier speaks to everyone else in Spanish but always switches to English upon seeing our faces.  

That was not the case when we visited Miami last year on vacation. With a large Spanish-speaking population of all shades, it was no longer obvious we wouldn't be able to understand Spanish. It also wasn’t obvious to us which cashiers would speak Spanish and which would speak English, though it seemed almost all could speak both. 

We’ve also fostered Latino children, another reminder of our differences in culture. From these kids, we learned about pozole and tamales, FIFA football and Latin pop.  

Race and ethnicity are all a lot more complicated than checking boxes -- and even more complicated than the genetic tests available these days. But it can also be an important part of who we are.  

My husband’s Irish side runs deep. Though the tests show the German side of my family isn’t as big as we thought, it still explains the origins of my maiden name, Rohrabaugh, and is important to my dad’s side.  

Whether we’re mostly Indian, half Black, part Latino or definitely white – the cultures that often derive from our races and ethnicities have value and shape us.  

We're also all humans, who sometimes fit the stereotypes and sometimes don’t, who can enjoy authentic tacos with or without speaking Spanish and who can all learn from and respect one another and our varied perspectives. 

Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a foster parent. 

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