For Kathrin P. Ivanovic, racial identity means a whole lot more than just black or white.
Her makeup runs the gamut.
"My mother is German and my birth father is African American with Cuban ancestry," says Ivanovic, 29, director of development at the Nationalities Service Center, a Philadelphia nonprofit that services immigrants and refugees.
"Plus, my adopted dad is white, and I'm queer. Unfortunately, they don't have a box for that.
". . . I call myself a mixed chick."
But when her 2010 U.S. Census form arrives in the mail this week (the 10-question form is being touted as the shortest in census history), Ivanovic will be satisfied to check black and white - which is really how she sees herself anyway.
Since the 2000 census, for millions of Americans like Ivanovic, "check one or more" will apply.
There is plenty to choose from, with the number of racial and ethnic categories at 63. In the 1990 census, there were only five designations offered.
It can be dizzying. If you're, say, Asian, you can check any combination of Asian American, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, Hawaiian, Guamanian, or Chamorro, Samoan, as well as write-in categories for Other Asian or Other Pacific Islander.
In addition, you can also note if you're of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin. That's because since 1970, Hispanic was no longer recognized as an overarching classification.
Still with me? (And here I thought having Negro on the same line as the black or African American box was confusing.)
But I'm all for it, especially if it paints a more genuine picture of who we are - all 300 million of us. Doesn't matter if only 2 percent of Americans were identified as more than one race in 2000. Nowadays, we've got more multiracial and multiethnic couples and children than ever before, which means the percentage is sure to increase this year.
Which in turn enables the government to allocate funds more equitably. Census data are used in everything from determining the number of congressmen your region gets to the assessing the amount of funding for your town's bridge project to supporting health centers.
Race data also have driven the nation's civil rights laws (how many people were denied the right to vote, how many were discriminated against in housing, for example) and are still used to monitor inequalities in health and education.
But it wasn't always that way.
Truth is, the U.S. Census was historically more of an oppressor than an advocate, especially when it came to African Americans.
From the time census data were first collected in 1790, when enumerators listed categories of free men and slaves, whites used the census to diminish African Americans.
"You can see why they had a slave category," says MIT professor Melissa Nobles, author of Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics. "Southern slave owners wanted the least amount of information, thinking it would help abolitionists. And abolitionists wanted the most amount of information [to make their case]."
Throughout the 19th century and until 1930, census counters used categories such as quadroon (one-quarter black), octoroon (one-eighth black), and mulatto (half black) to describe any person who had a discernible amount of African American blood.
Like they could tell just from looking.
Even after 1930, Southern laws imposed the "one-drop rule" to its census enumerating, meaning they were to count as mulattos anyone who even looked remotely black - a mandate loosely applied by census counters nationwide.
"They used it for racial social science," Nobles says. For example, they used census data to prove skewed theories (arguing, for instance, that biracial people - "the tragic mulatto" - were somehow weaker and suffered from higher death rates), which in turn helped legislators make the case against interracial marriage.
But even as the categories have expanded, some today are pushing for a separate, generic multiracial designation.
Ralina L. Joseph, a professor of communications at the University of Washington, worries that even though the data will show us as more diverse and multihued, they could be misinterpreted once again.
"I don't want people to read the numbers and think that racism is over, that this is a post-racial moment," says Joseph, who is biracial. "We should hope that people who are disenfranchised through race, class, and poverty levels should be identified as such."
Some sociologists even insist that racial designations have no place on a census form, if it is indeed as simple as an objective count.
But in a multiracial, multiethnic society where even the president is a self-described "mutt," Kathrin Ivanovic is grateful for the choice.
"I am mixed. It's how I view the world, and in some ways it's how the world views me," she says. "To not be able to identify that way is dishonest to me personally."