More than once, Michelle Farkas has received a text message from her son, asking her to verify his Mexican heritage. The 38-year-old administrative assistant is usually at work and her boy, now a senior in high school, is in class, sitting next to one or more doubtful students.
"I have to text him back to say, 'Yes, you're Mexican,' because he's very fair-skinned and people have not believed him — that he's any part Mexican at all," she said.
Farkas, who was born with the name Gutierrez, understands. On her father's side, her grandfather was Mexican and her grandmother was half Mexican, half Portuguese. Her mother, who was born in Kansas, was of English and Scandinavian heritage.
As a child, other kids would always ask her "What are you?" Her facial features are similar to her father's, but she has green eyes.
"Even now, people want to know," she said. "People don't ask as much now because I'm sure they think it would be rude."
Such questions about race and heritage are likely to become more and more common in Sonoma County, where a growing number of Latinos — the county's fastest-growing population group — are identifying themselves as white on government census forms.
Nearly 61 percent of the county's estimated 116,000 Latinos identified themselves as white in a recently released Census Bureau survey, up from 41 percent in 2000.
The reason for the dramatic increase is unclear. Demographic researchers say that one reason could be the federal government's apparent insistence that people choose a race when filling out census forms. But some of the increase may come from the blending of cultures that occurs as people from different ethnic groups marry and have children.
Whatever the reason, the question of race can often be confusing for Latinos.
Farkas faced a dilemma when the Census Bureau asked her in 2010 to choose her race. A note on the 2010 Census form made it clear that "Hispanic origins are not races." Farkas said the question seemed confusing and she marked "white" because she felt she had no choice.
For years, many anthropologists have argued that the question of race is an antiquated concept, rejecting racial categories as separate divisions within the human species. A 1998 statement by the American Anthropological Association states that DNA evidence shows there is more genetic variation within "racial" groups than between them.
For its part, the Census Bureau acknowledges that people's responses to the race question are based on "self-identification." The Census Bureau states that its racial categories generally reflect race as it is defined socially in the United States.
The data is used by federal, state and local governments when considering issues such as civil rights, legislative redistricting, equal employment and health and environmental risk disparities.
But with the rapid growth of Latinos, many of whom are multi-ethnic and multi-racial, America's old race standards are becoming more and more obsolete.
"What's going on now is actually a breakdown of the concept of race," said Francisco Vazquez, director of the Hutchins Institute for Public Policy Studies.
Vazquez said the country has moved well beyond the era when you could ask people whether they were black, white, Asian, or Native American and get definitive responses.
In an online survey, The Press Democrat asked Latino readers how they responded to the Census Bureau's question of race. Some said they ignored it, while others, like Farkas, said they marked white because they felt they had no other choice.
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