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I can't fit in a single box on a census form

By Cheryl Contee, Special to CNN
  • Cheryl Contee is the co-founder of the blog Jack and Jill Politics
  • She says her heritage is African American, Native American and white
  • Her grandmother said, "I'm Heinz 57, baby ... Baskin-Robbins 31 flavors!"
  • Contee says she's checking off all the boxes that apply to her background

Editor's note: America's 300 million-plus people are declaring their identity in the 2010 census. This piece is part of a special series on in which people describe how they see their own identity. Cheryl Contee is the co-founder of Jack and Jill Politics, one of the top African-American political blogs online and co-owner of, which provides social media and mobile services to leading nonprofits and foundations.

(CNN) -- I'll be checking off all the boxes as requested on the 2010 census because it's part of being a good citizen.

I'm filling out the form because as an African-American, I know that my community is depending on me. I'm going to fill out all the questions -- even the ones about race identification.

Yet, like many African-Americans, the boxes I usually check off on the census don't fully describe who I am. Both of my grandmothers were half-Native American. I have Cherokee and Piscataway Indian ancestory -- and probably one or two other Native nations, too. I'm at least 25 percent Indian, and yet I've felt uncertain about how I would describe that on a census form.

Also, like many African-Americans, I'm part white. I have numerous white ancestors. The oral histories of those folks on both sides vary from courageous and loving to cruel and haughty. The ethnicities of those ancestors sprawl from Jewish to French to Spanish to Scot-Irish and English. I feel the most distant from expressing that racial identity publicly even as I am regularly immersed in my high-tech career world in that culture.

When I look in the mirror each morning, my face epitomizes the American melting pot. I can't ignore the pale skin of my white forebears, the slanted eyes of my Indian relatives nor the full lips and curly hair of my African blood.

Name: Cheryl Contee
Age: 38
Birthplace: New York
Occupation: Partner, Fission Strategy

My grandmother is still alive at 89. Her father was half-white and half-Indian. Her mother was half-black and half-Indian. In the Baltimore of my grandmother's time, not that long ago, that made my grandmother simply Negro.

I do know from family stories and whispers on both sides that being Indian somehow felt even more scary than being Negro. Given the intensity of the oppression of African-Americans in this country says something about how Native Americans have been historically treated.

I have no earthly idea what she and her parents and siblings put down on their census forms. My grandmother identifies publicly as African-American although she used to tell me that when people would challenge that and press her on her actual ethnicity, she would say: "I'm Heinz 57, baby ... Baskin-Robbins 31 flavors!"

Ultimately the census is a private and conflicted choice for many people between ethnicity and identity.

The way the questions are structured today captures not your genetic makeup but what you tell society you are.

In the African-American community, traditionally, it's often seen as a betrayal of your race to admit to being anything other than black since our society used the "one drop" rule anyway to discriminate -- you once could be sold as a slave in Louisiana even if you were 1/32nd black.

When I look in the mirror each morning, my face epitomizes the American melting pot.
--Cheryl Contee

I'm proud to be African-American -- I've co-founded in my spare time one of the most popular and influential black blogs on the Internet: It doesn't get much blacker than that!

Yet I long at times to find ways to honor my grandmothers' heritages, too, and connect with the 25 percent of me that is Native American.

I've had many people who publicly identify as white tell me about their Native American great-grandparents. My college boyfriend and his family in West Virginia identified publicly as white -- yet, like me, he knew he had Indian and black bloodlines and not far below the surface either. How would our viewpoint of Native Americans and their history in this country change if more people checked off all the boxes that describe them?

The story of America is so much richer than the census is capturing. My hope is that, as a culture, we can begin to transcend the simplistic and antagonistic categories that society and Jim Crow laws forced us to choose.

Rather than facing a census form and feeling pressured to choose, I'd like more Americans to expand their notion of who they are and embrace not "or's" but "and's": I'm white ... and black ... and Native American ... and Asian-American ... and Hispanic.

Having a president who looks black and yet speaks in glowing terms of the white blood relations who nurtured him is an encouraging start. President Obama is a courageous example to us all of a blended and expanded concept of ethnicity and identity in America.

On my census form, I'll be checking all the boxes that describe who I am this year. It's a small step forward toward an America where your ethnicity is not destiny and truly something to celebrate.

I'd like to see more modern technology used -- it would increase response rates among younger people, for instance, if people could respond to the census using SMS and their mobile forms. There is no digital divide when you account for the mobile Internet.

It would be significantly cheaper for the census to use e-mail or online forms rather than postal mail and would probably reduce the need for door-to-door checks. Evidently that will have to wait until the 2020 census.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Cheryl Contee.