Abagail Catania is photographed at the University of Evansville. MINH CONNORS/EVANSVILLE COURIER & PRESS
Abagail Catania is photographed at the University of Evansville. MINH CONNORS/EVANSVILLE COURIER & PRESS
It’s not unusual to hear country music blast out of a radio as a car engine fires up — but when it happens in Abagail Catania’s vehicle, people flip out.

Catania, who moved to Evansville in December, was born 25 years ago of a Black father and a white mother. Her Black friends are confused when her favorite Jason Aldean or Carrie Underwood tunes blare.

“Sometimes they’ll make fun, or they’ll just be like, ‘What is this?’” she said with a laugh. “Sometimes it happens with white people too, but less often because they’ve at least heard the music, whereas on the flip side it’s like, ‘I would never in my life listen to this.’ I’m like, ‘I listen to this 24/7.”

It’s not all laughs when people wonder whether you’re Black or white, or when they respond to you based on what they decide you are. Catania grew up mostly with her mother’s family in a South Chicago neighborhood she calls “very racist.” Before she took a job at the University of Evansville’s Center for Diversity Equity and Inclusion, she went the other way. She studied in cosmopolitan London, England, which has the largest non-white population of any European city.

Sometimes, Catania confesses, she feels white and sometimes she feels Black. Sometimes neither.

The first batch of 2020 census figures in August came with one eye-opening figure that suggested people with Catania’s experiences aren’t as unusual in Vanderburgh County as they once were. The number of residents identifying as multi-racial shot up by 165% over the decade while the white population shrank 6%.

It was the same in Henderson County, Kentucky, which saw its white population shrink by nearly 9% while those reporting two or more races increased 191%. The number of residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino shot up 63% in Vanderburgh County and 59% in Henderson County.

But while the evidence of children being born to couples of differing races and ethnicities is all around us, it’s not as simple as that. The reasons for the shift likely also include changes in how the U.S. Census Bureau asks about race and ethnicity and codes answers, the popularity of at-home DNA ancestry testing and the circumstantial ways people see themselves.

“The difference is the wealth of information that we are now collecting from respondents and that they’re able to provide to us,” said Rachel Marks, chief of the racial statistics branch at the Census Bureau. “All of that really allowed us to collect and tabulate a more accurate picture of the nation.”

But Marks knows the multiracial population growth and notable declines in the white population that happened all over the country aren’t just a product of how the bureau sorted through write-in responses to census race and Hispanic origin responses.

“We can’t really tease out how much of each it is, but we do believe there is both going on – both improvements and changes that we’ve made to the (census) questionnaire design and the way that we are capturing the data and coding it — but then also real demographic change as well,” she said.

Joji and Jessica Nagashima of Evansville are living testimony to the ripples created in this community and everywhere else as recent immigrants from Asia and Latin America have children with white partners.

The Nagashimas — Joji is from Japan originally and Jessica is “a West Sider from the day I was born” — have a 14-year-old daughter, Ariah. They met in Evansville two decades ago, spent several years in Hawaii while Joji worked as a tattoo artist, then moved back here.

Typical of many local residents of Asian descent, Joji long ago left his native country behind. He jokes, without a hint of an accent, that he can speak Japanese “if you like broken Japanese.”

“I was raised in Colorado, so all that is gone,” he said with a chuckle.

But like so many others who live here but aren’t from anywhere near here, Joji looks different — and that can make all the difference sometimes.

“Usually we’re getting weird looks at the older-generation restaurants,” Jessica said. “It’s a shame, because we like that food.”

It mostly happens on the West Side, the Nagashimas say.

“It’s country farm boys that are kind of set in their own ways. I don’t agree with it, but you can’t change everybody’s opinions,” Jessica said.

What were the changes to the census?

The Census Bureau didn’t begin allowing respondents to select more than one race until 2000. It has been seeking more detail ever since for data that is central to drawing legislative districts, enforcing civil rights laws, guiding federal funds to communities and crunching health statistics.

The Census Bureau is adamant that the changes it made to the 2020 national headcount “reveal the U.S. population is more racially and ethnically diverse than measured in 2010.”

Among those changes:

• In a bid for more nuanced information about racial identities, the Census Bureau provided write-in response areas and six examples for the largest population groups within each of the “White,” “Black or African American” and “American Indian or Alaska Native” racial categories. The six major race categories are those three plus two for Asian and Pacific Islander groups and the catchall “Some Other Race.”
• The Census Bureau began capturing up to 200 characters of written responses to the race and Hispanic origin questions rather than the first 30 characters.
• The bureau coded up to six detailed codes for each write-in area in the race and Hispanic origin questions, instead of two. The increase “effectively gave all responses an equal opportunity to be coded into one of the six major race categories,” the bureau said.
• If someone gave more than two write-in responses to the Hispanic origin question in the 2010 census, the bureau prioritized coding Hispanic groups over race groups and other responses. In 2020, the bureau coded up to six responses, regardless of the Hispanic origin or race group.
• In 2010, if someone included more than two groups as part of a write-in text string on the same line in the race question, the bureau prioritized coding race groups over Hispanic origin groups or other types of responses. In 2020, it coded up to six responses, regardless of race group or Hispanic origin.

The Census Bureau has warned that comparisons to 2010 census data are limited.

Marks said people have asked the Census Bureau to re-run its 2010 data using its updated coding to suss out how much of the dramatic changes are attributable to genuine demographic change. It’s not possible because much of the comparable data was never captured in 2010.

There’s a more practical issue: you still wouldn’t know if you’re comparing the same people. You don’t know who changed their answers, who died, who was born or who moved into an area or who moved out.

And there’s this: The Census Bureau estimates that in 2010 it overcounted people who identified as white and did not identify as Hispanic or Latino, while it undercounted Black and Hispanic populations and Native Americans who live on reservations.

There were staggering shifts in Vanderburgh County in 2020

Even with the limitations, a look inside Vanderburgh County’s 2010 census numbers suggests what might have happened here in the 2020 headcount.

• The biggest change happened in the category of people calling themselves both “White” and “Some Other Race,” the nebulous alternative to what the federal government deems the nation’s major racial groups. It grew from 234 people in 2010 to 2,603, a staggering 1,012% increase.
• The number of people calling themselves “White” and “American Indian or Alaska Native” increased 381%, from just more than 550 to nearly 2,700.
• The residents calling themselves both “White” and “Black or African American” increased 57%.
• The people who self-identified as “White” alone — meaning they checked off only the “White” box on the census — are still Vanderburgh County’s single largest racial group at 81%. Their number was down 6% from 2010. But if you count anyone who described himself as white in combination with one or more of the other racial categories, that more broadly defined white population decreased by just 2%. For all these reportedly huge changes in Vanderburgh County’s racial makeup, the county’s total population still increased by just a few hundred people to 180,136.

Dr. Laura Soderberg, a University of Southern Indiana professor who specializes in African-American and multiethnic American culture, wonders how much the rise of at-home DNA ancestry testing may have affected these findings.

Some white people may think it’s fashionable to be associated with other races or may simply be engaged in wishful thinking, said Soderberg, who is white.

“People have overreliance on DNA results as real reality – there are scientific limits to what they can tell you,” she said. “White people in the U.S. also have a history of especially claiming Native American identify that they don’t have any real claim on because they think it’s interesting.”

If people who are not part of marginalized groups claim to be part of marginalized groups on the census, that can hinder understanding of discrimination or inequality, Soderberg said. Census results are used to enforce civil rights laws and assess racial disparities in health care, access to housing and education.

“Part of the problems with these identifications is that they tend to be premised on convenience. People claiming them opt in when it’s beneficial, but either opt out or are exempt from the social costs of these categories — so they might end up with a very superficial understanding of inequality,” she said.

“It’s also inherently insulting to have someone feel entitled to these identities, because it takes away the right for groups to define themselves through things like culture, family ties, and personal relationships.”

Sometimes identity is a mix of fact and circumstance

Danielle Hodge’s maiden name — Siciliano — screams Italiano. It’s emblazoned on the Italian-style eatery she and her husband, David. own and operate in Evansville.

Born and raised in Miami to a Cubanborn mother and a father who called himself Italian because his grandmother was born there, Hodge considers herself a first-generation Cuban-American.

Her mother never spoke to her family in Spanish at home. Her maternal grandmother did, though. School did the rest. That’s why Hodge is fluent.

Her story speaks to how circumstantial ethnic identity can be.

“My father’s side of the family always said that they’re Italian, even though they weren’t technically born there. They say their background is – they just say they’re Italian,” Hodge said with a chuckle.

“So I guess we get into this weird gray area on who can claim that they’re from where. What does it mean? Were you born there? I got that a lot when I was in Miami, from other Cubans. They would ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ And I would say, ‘Oh, I’m Cuban.’ And they would ask me right away, ‘Were you born there? Well no, I wasn’t.”

Hodge is sure of her standing.

“I consider myself a first generation Cuban-American. My mom was born there. I cook Cuban food. I speak the language,” she declared. Hodge met her husband, Evansvilleborn David Hodge, about 15 years ago while they were both working at Casino Aztar. They took off for Miami and lived there for about 10 years before moving back here.

The couple has three kids, 2-year-old twins and a 6-year-old daughter. They are, Danielle Hodge said, a truly mixed family.

“I speak Spanish to our kids at home,” she said. “I feel like they should absolutely identify as Hispanic. I mean, I’m a first-generation Cuban-American, so my kids are also part Cuban, in my opinion.”

But like the Nagashimas, Hodge knows race and ethnicity — and how you’re treated — often comes down to what people see and hear.

“I’ve had to whitewash myself a lot to live in Evansville,” she said. “Even down to my accent. It’s completely gone because of living in Evansville. I feel like people won’t take me seriously as a businesswoman, that somebody wouldn’t take me as seriously as somebody who did not have an accent.”

Accepting those feelings — that they’re genuine and they’re probably accurate — is a matter of simple pragmatism.

Abagail Catania may be both Black and white, but she identifies as Black on applications other than the census.

“I’ve had this conversation with people before — ‘Oh, which one do we choose for us mixed kids?” she said. “I always go with the one that is true to my outward identity.

“At the end of the day, people have those unconscious biases. They go off of what they can visually see within the first 13 seconds, and part of that is skin color.”

It’s not just white people who do that in Evansville in 2021, Jessica Nagashima said. She gets looked at sitting alongside her Japanese-born husband in Asian restaurants. It’s part of the cost of doing business.

“We try not to let it affect us,” Jessica said.
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