Race and the U.S. Census: Defining Whiteness

Over time – from the first census in 1790 to the 2010 census today – the number of categories has grown and the racial designations have changed, all except for one = “white.”  While the category “white” has remained a constant on census forms, the meaning of whiteness – and who is, and is not, included in the category “white” has changed a great deal. In this fascinating interview (7:39) from The Takeaway, scholar Nell Irvin Painter the changing definition of whiteness and the U.S. census:

She’s discussing her new book, The History of White People. One of the points that she makes is this:

“Until the 1960’s, there were two racial dialogues going on the United States. One was more or less Southern, and that was black-white. The other had to do with various kinds of white people.”

The audio piece above includes an audio recording of NY-Governor Al Smith talking about “every race in the world” in which he lists a number of groups that we would now regard as white.

We see this kind of changing definition of whiteness taking shape in the 2010 census as well. There is a active movement among Arab Americans to resist being included in the category “white” in the current census. The “Yalla! Count” campaign, whose slogan “Check it Right, You Ain’t White,” as Jillian C. York points out is, for some, “simply a matter of feeling recognized as a distinct group, separate from the White majority,” and for others, it’s a deeply political issue and an important site of resistance.

The census, for good or for ill, is a key mechanism in shaping how we think about, research and analyze race and ethnicity, including what it means to be white.


  1. Joe

    Thanks, Jessie. And the really key issue is who gets to decide who is white….
    Historically and today that is, of course, the powerful self-defined white elite. In our survey of white college students, no more than about 12 percent saw any of the not-white groups (Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Blacks–and any of the subgroups under these umbrella terms — as “white.” That is, they made it quite clear that the supposed “honorary white” category sometimes applied to some folks of color is not really a reality in their white-framed minds.


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