The 'Other' box

Saturday November 24, 2007 @ 05:33 PM (UTC)

I’m applying for a fellowship, so once again I face my old friend the ‘ethnic origin’ question. And, more than ever, I am stymied.

“What the heck?” you might say. “You’re white, Felicity.” The problem is, I don’t believe in ‘white’, or its oh-so-inaccurate euphemism ‘Caucasian’. Yes, most of my ancestors came here on boats from Europe, and only a few of them travelled a land bridge from Asia. But that’s not what ‘white’ means. ‘White’ is the absence of ethnicity.

I’m by no means the first to think this, and if you look into the history of Jews, Italian and Irish in America, you’ll see what I mean. All of those people are now expected to check ‘Caucasian’ on the form. Time was, they were featured in minstrel shows and (with the exception of Irish, perhaps) strung up for looking too long at ‘white’ women. Why are they white now? Because white doesn’t mean anything except what you’re not. Not ethnic, not unacceptable, unassimilated, or dangerous.

The truth is, I’m “white”. I have white privilege. But I don’t want to keep using these words. I’m an English major, I’m a writer, and I want words to have meanings. Meanings that don’t seat us deeper in our assumptions and cultural blindness. I don’t want to take to myself a word that says “acceptable”, “not dangerous”, “not Other”. There is no box for where I come from, no pie chart where I can map out how much of me is recently arrived, how much has been here since the 18th century, how much predates Columbus. There is no write-in big enough for all the countries and identities that are mixed up in my veins.

So what do I do? Do I lash out against the system in my tiny way, check the “Other” box to register the pathos of the system? What does that accomplish, and aren’t these statistics, however arbitrary the categories, the tools with which we work towards change and equity? Why should I vandalize them because they’re working within the system? My pen hovers over “Caucasion” and “Other”, comes down at last on the coward’s choice: “Decline to state.”


I’ve actually met a true Caucasian—the kind from Caucasus. I wonder how it came to be that so many of us are ethnically classified as tracing our roots to a small country on the Russian border that most Americans probably don’t even know exists?

According to the wikipeedz, a German naturalist back in the bad old days found a Caucasian skull with many points of similarity to German skulls and hypothesized that Western Europeans arose in those parts. And apparently that they were the first race? I dunno why, but I bet it has to do with colonialism and white supremacy!

I generally check other and go with “human.”

Not much more helpful than declines to state, I suppose. But it might give the human (when there is one) who is forced to transcribe a chuckle, and raise a database query game.

I used to do that. Also, in high school, “VW Driver”. Alas, this form has no write-in. Other’s just Other.

A) I find statistics, when taken and displayed accurately, to be interesting, and potentially useful. Affirmative action (once its most egregious flaws are fettered out) is still a lesser of several evils. For marketing surveys (which I think it easily the majority of time I see the question) it’s not a big deal if somebody wants to be imprecise. I don’t mind giving data, because the more of people like me they think are around, the more I’ll get marketed to/designed for. I like this happening.

B) We are talking about words having meaning. And most people use ‘white’ and ‘Caucasian’ interchangeably. They (almost) never mean people whose skin reflects all light, nor people from Caucasus. So for me to take a different referent than what I know they mean would be silly and self-defeating. I stopped correcting people’s ‘can I have a cookie?’ long ago. If they use podium when talking of a lectern, it matters not to me, unless they’re one of the people I expect to know better and like teasing. But marketers and surveyors don’t fall into that category.

C) ‘Black’ is another horridly imprecise word, but mostly people take it how it’s meant by its users. It’s difficult for me to think of racial terms that don’t contain potentially offensive levels of ambiguity and imprecision.

D) If there is an other box with a write-in, you’re absolutely correct: the ability to have some other more whimsical response trumps all the above. Otherwise, meh; use other people’s referents, not words.

I have to admit to conformism (gasp) on this particular topic. I check the ‘Caucasian’ box. I could check the ‘other’ box, but then I’d have to jot down a rather boring formula involving 8ths – specifically 1 Swedish, 1 Romany and 6 additional unspecified parts of more or less Germanic Danishness.

I suppose I could proudly tout my Romany heritage, but that would undoubtedly be an insult to the Romany. And Swedish – I’d rather not think too much about that, but that would obviously be ‘Caucasian origin’ just as well as the 6 parts Dane.

Checking the ‘Caucasian’ box seems harmless enough and just about as much trouble, in my perspective, as the matter merits. ;)

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