How exactly does one describe belonging? Belonging to what exactly? How am I defined in relationship to the exteriority of life in general? The difficulty lies in the bare fact that the description of belonging is a constant requirement applied to me as I trudge through the lived experience we call life. Yesterday, for example, I was at the doctor’s office, a specialist I hadn’t seen in a year, and I had to complete some new paperwork. At the very top I was asked to declare my ethnicity and my race. Suddenly, I was once again faced with the decision of whether or not I declare nothing or declare something. The issue of race is problematic for me. While I look rather Caucasian, when my grandparents arrived in these United States as immigrants in the very late 19th century their race was shown as “Hebrew;” a choice no longer available to me but one in which I take some degree of pride.
Ethnicity is also a problem for me. What does ethnicity mean? There were only two choices given for the problematic of ethnicity: Hispanic or Non-Hispanic White. While offended by the two and only two choices for ethnicity I wondered why ethnicity is both connected to race and to geographic linguistic associations.
There were many more choices for race than for ethnicity, among them White, African-American, Other, Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American each of which presents a specific problematic. Take African-American as an example. If that is a category of race then why isn’t there a category for European-Americans? Or, what about the plain fact that I was born in the United States making me a Native American but the term is reserved for the aboriginal people who resided in this country before there were any European-Americans bent on eliminating or assimilating the aboriginal people in the 19th and 20th centuries. Confusing to say the least. What about the “Other” category, which, by the way, is the one I choose if I decide to declare anything at all. It seems to me that we all should choose “Other” and if it is not available make a new category with a pen and a margin.
My sense of belonging is not compartmentalized; it does not belong in a check-box for the sake of statistical data sets that somehow tell the collectors nothing about the individual, rather, the data set collected tends to flatten by reducing individuals to categorical compartments that focus on the sameness of belonging to the arbitrary category claimed by the declaration of belonging through the simple act of checking a box on a form. The only category that is uniquely different is that of “Other” the category that is a catchall for those of us who are uncomfortable with the reductionist choices available on most forms.
“Other” declares that I do not belong to the arbitrary groupings set down as somehow normative. The “Other” classification lets me honor my “Hebrew” grandparents, my assimilated parents and my acculturated self, each of whom are able to be represented in the category that does not contain an arbitrary reduction to the same; it is a choice that does not flatten into sameness the check-box membership declared out of a sense of duty or obligation to comply with the requested information.
The option of not declaring is one that embraces the uniqueness of the self, my uniqueness in this world while also recognizing the absolute uniqueness of every other [human being]. Not choosing to reduce the self into a compartmentalized arbitrary category is a way of screaming softly that I do not belong to that which is a capricious choice, rather I am not allowing myself to choose because I cannot rationally choose any of the categories and remain an honest ethical human being. So I chose to not choose, to not declare either race or ethnicity because the choice, if made, is too complicated for a check-box on a form.