Story at a glance

  • In the 2020 Census, there is no option for Taiwanese Americans to identify their race.
  • Instead, they must check the “other” box under Asian Americans and write in “Taiwanese.”
  • The Six Degrees of Separation campaign aims to educate the Taiwanese American community on the significance of being counted in the census and how to identify themselves.

In the 2020 census form, there’s an option to write in your race if it’s not listed as one of the fourteen other options. But what happens if the United States doesn’t recognize the country you’re from?

For decades, Taiwanese Americans have identified simply as “Asian American” or even “Chinese,” which the U.S. has included on census forms since 1860. The "Other" option was introduced in the 1910 census, but "Asian or Pacific Islander" and "Other API" weren't introduced until 1990. 

“We don’t know what kind of Asian that they are and policy-wise we can’t really hone in on who’s there. In the snapshot of America, ‘Other Asian’ doesn’t really tell you very much,” said Christina Hu, director of civic organization at the Taiwanese Americans Citizen League (TACL). “There’s something lost in that if you don’t write-in [Taiwanese].”

Hu added that people are more inclined to skip the question entirely if they don’t see an option for their race. Of course, Americans weren't even able to identify their own race until 1960, before which the census taker would determine the answer. 

"The census taker would come to your house, look at you and then check the box that they think you are," said Hu, who moved to the U.S. from Taiwan at age 11. 

So for the fourth census in a row, the TACL has launched a campaign to educate Taiwanese Americans on the census, how to identify their race and why it matters. The Six Degrees of Separation campaign encourages Taiwanese Americans to open conversations with others in their community, saying "friends tell friends about the 2020 Census.”

“There’s money trickling down, so if you don’t get counted then you don’t get the money that’s accounted to you,” Hu said. “[Asian Americans] are all different, so to know that information is really key in terms of arguing for the right policies.”

The U.S. does not formally recognize Taiwan as a country or support its independence, acknowledging the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China. But the government has maintained commercial ties with Taiwan since the 1950s, sending aid and later opening trade, and has an unofficial relationship through the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). In the 2010 Census, 215,441 respondents identified as Taiwanese, excluding those who identified as Chinese and Taiwanese together. 

Even within the Taiwanese American community, Hu said some immigrants from Taiwan consider themselves Chinese and others are split between the two options. Since 2000, the Census Bureau allows respondents to check off more than one box in response to the question on race. Even within a family, different generations can identify as different races. 

“It can become a fairly personal conversation,” Hu said. 

However people identify, it’s about self-advocacy for Hu. 

“If we become a recognizable political force then we do get more political power,” she said. “You’re a different type of American presence, so you want to advocate for your own community.”

The campaign kicked off on March 1, but volunteers have been working on the effort since May 2019. Informational materials like videos and infographics shared on their social media accounts are translated into Mandarin as well as Hokkien and Hakka dialects.

Hu said TACL hopes to continue their campaign even after the 2020 census is conducted. 

“We’re looking at what can we do in between [censuses] to continue this type of passion and this type of activity and civil engagement. We really don’t want it to just be a spurt every ten years,” she said.

Published on Mar 02, 2020