WASHINGTON (AP) -- Linda Mahdesian grew up feeling a part of the black Chicago neighborhood in which she was raised. But as the daughter of a black father and white mother, she never felt completely at ease identifying herself as black when filling out forms at school or work.
"All my life, I could never truly identify myself," she said.
Now Mahdesian and others of mixed race may gain a new measure of recognition from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The bureau is considering counting people of mixed race as a separate category for the first time, an idea that is stirring an emotional debate.
Supporters say the move would help foster a sense of pride and self-affirmation among the swelling ranks of mixed-race Americans, many of whom feel ignored by the larger society.
But some civil rights advocates worry that the new category would reduce the numbers of blacks and Hispanics recorded in the census, imperiling minority voting districts and financing for minority aid programs.
For Ramona E. Douglass, a California activist who is of mixed parentage, the issue is simple.
"I don't want to be invisible anymore," said Douglass, president of the Association of MultiEthnic Americans, a San Francisco-based advocacy group for multiethnic and multiracial people.
"The census form allows me to select 'other' as a choice, but I'm not an 'other,'" Douglass said. "I'm a multiracial person and I should be represented."
A preliminary decision on whether the next census will include a new category for multiracial people is expected from the federal Office of Management and Budget in June or July.
Debate over the new category underscores what some demographers have called a silent explosion in the number of mixed-race people in the United States.
Between 1960 and 1990, the number of interracial married couples ballooned from 150,000 to more than 1.1 million, according to census figures.
The number of children of interracial families leaped from 460,300 in 1970 to more than 1.9 million by 1990.
"America is changing in ways previously unimagined," said Rep. Thomas Sawyer, D-Ohio, who chaired a House subcommittee on census reform. "We could become perhaps the first transethnic and transcultural society."
For example, Sawyer said, 60 percent of Japanese people who marry in America wed someone of another race. Such trends should compel the government to make sure the census accurately reflects "who we really are," he said.
America's method for tracking race has always been fluid. The first census in 1790 gave just three choices: free white male, free white female or slave.
In 1890, the census included categories for octoroon and quadroon to measure those of one-eighth and one-fourth black ancestry. It also listed Chinese and Japanese as separate races.
The last census offered five options: black, white, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander, and other. It asked a follow-up question to get a separate count of Hispanics, who can be of any race.
Adding a new mixed-race category for the 2000 census is just one aim of the burgeoning multirace movement.
Other goals include an increase in transracial adoptions and more financing for medical research on how genetically related diseases such as sickle-cell anemia affect mixed-race people, according to Mahdesian, founder of RIME, the Rhode Island Multiracial Exchange.
"Part of having a place on the census is that we can be tracked," said Mahdesian. "Politicians will count us. And we know government funds flow from those numbers."
"We are fighting for our existence," Mahdesian said.
Fighting the multirace question are some civil rights activists who worry that the new category could result in reduced government and private financing for minority programs affected by census figures. It also could affect the number and location of new minority voting districts, they say.