RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Census Bureau is making another change to how it asks about race in the U.S. This time it's affecting Caucasians. Those who mark the box for white on the 2020 census will be asked to give more information about what that means about their background. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang explains.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: For more than a half century, just answering white has been enough to complete the race question on the census. But in 2020, the Census Bureau says it's going to go deeper and ask non-Hispanic white people to write in their origins. Here are the instructions from a questionnaire the bureau's testing for 2020.
CINDY SPECTOR: Print, for example, German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, etc. OK, that's interesting.
WANG: That was Cindy Spector of Brooklyn, N.Y. She says she checked off the white box on the last census in 2010. But now that the federal government is planning to essentially ask white people where they're really from, Spector says she's not sure what to put down.
Where's your family from?
SPECTOR: How far back? (Laughter) Milwaukee, Wis.
WANG: And before that?
SPECTOR: Oh, before that - according to my grandparents, we're Russian and Romanian. But I don't know prior - their parents and their grandparents, etc., where they're from.
WANG: It's a conundrum that many people marking the census box for black or African-American may have to face too. They'll also be asked to write in their origins. The Census Bureau did not respond to NPR's questions about why these specific changes were made. But the bureau has said previously that it's received requests for, quote, "more detailed, disaggregated data for our diverse American experiences." And asking about origins on a census is not new. But questions about ancestry have been presented separately from the race question, which may seem like a minor technical detail. But for Peter Farnsworth of Brooklyn, this change gets into personal territory.
PETER FARNSWORTH: Don't make me specify what kind of white. If you want to know my race, that's fine. But I don't need to give you details about what kind of white I identify with.
WANG: Farnsworth says he identifies as American though his family has ties with England, Scotland, Ireland and...
FARNSWORTH: Nobody ever believes me when I say this, but my dad's side of the family has lived in Jamaica for hundreds of years.
WANG: Hundreds of years?
WANG: Elizabeth Grasso, also from Brooklyn, says her ancestors came from Germany and Italy. And being asked to give a more detailed answer about her white identity brings back stories she's heard about her Italian grandparents.
ELIZABETH GRASSO: There was discrimination against them when they were younger that I - you know, I'm very lucky to not experience now. But there was a time when Italians weren't considered white.
WANG: At a recent luncheon for seniors at the New York Irish Center though, many said they support the 2020 census asking white people about their origins, including Martina Molloy of Queens.
MARTINA MOLLOY: I always consider myself Irish first and American second, which may not be the right thing to say in this country. But that's how I feel.
MOLLOY: Molloy helps serve slices of pizza to seniors lined up in front of a wall of historical memorabilia, including an old sign that said help wanted. No Irish need apply. While Malloy is sure about her ancestry, not everyone knows their family history that well. That's why Charles Gallagher, a sociologist at La Salle University in Philadelphia who studies white identity, says any 2020 census numbers about white origins may not be reliable.
CHARLES GALLAGHER: If you have a population that's been in the United States for a very long time, and people have been, you know, crossing the ethnic line in dating and marrying, people aren't going to have a real accurate record.
WANG: And he says if you're thinking about mailing out your DNA for testing, beware. So far the results are not a reliable guide, he says, for how to fill out your census form accurately.
Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF KAKI KING'S "KING PIZEL")
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