It’s February, the month during which some of us just finished our applications for summer internships, others are in the midst of them, and others, sad to see the big January 31st application deadline roll by, are just beginning or have not yet begun the process. I am definitely not part of the first category (I’m not that organized) although I’m not necessarily par ot the last one either. I made calendars for January and February deadlines – even if some of them crept up and slipped by without my sending in anything…but my procrastination and disorganization are not the main subjects of this post. Instead, as I was filling out applications something struck me or, more precisely, I was reminded of something I’ve wrestled with before. What am I?
I don’t mean this in a philosophical sense. I’m not referring to, what does it mean to be human? What is it that makes us different from other species? I do not mean, “who am I,” either? Although I may not be completely sure or able to describe who I am in words, I know where to start: I’m Jane. No, I mean what am I? What do I check when I’m faced with a list of words with empty boxes next to them? I’m supposed to check off what I ‘identify’ myself with. But, what do I do when I don’t feel like I fit into any of these boxes?
For me—and I’m guessing for others too— the blank application form taunts me. Its crisp text stares at me from my bright, glaring computer screen, and it whispers to me, “Fill me out. Send this in already. Have you written your cover letter yet? Do you really think this is enough time to ask for a recommendation letter?” and softer, “Where do you belong? How do you not know? It’s simple. It’s clear-cut. There are categories and boxes, just check the one that applies.” Yet, I’m left with the same question: what do I check when I don’t feel like I identify with any of these boxes?
At this point, I should probably clarify what I’m talking about. In case you haven’t guessed, I’m referring to the section on many application forms and other materials that asks for your “ethnicity” or “race.” A good example of this is the Common Application form. I will refer to their labels with quotation marks. They call this section “demographics” – how sterile.
Let me explain why this part of the application gives me difficulty. I was born in Medellin, Colombia, but my parents were both born in the U.S. and do not have any relation to Colombia, other through than me. My dad grew up on Long Island, and my mom in Elmira, a town in Western NY. My dad’s Jewish; I’m not sure specifically where his family is from although they are most likely from different Eastern European countries – according to my Grandma, one of them is Austria. My mom grew up going to Catholic school and is Italian, German, Irish, and Ukrainian. If I weren’t adopted, I think choosing a category wouldn’t be hard for me at all—I would just check “White.” However, I’m not my parents’ biological daughter. I don’t look like them, and I don’t look ‘white.’ This was a weird thing to understand as a kid. My mom is 5’ 8,” blonde, and has green-blue eyes. When I was really little, I used think that as I got older I would begin to look a little bit like her. This was obviously not the case. I’m 5’2;” I have brown (almost black) eyes and brown hair. Still, I don’t feel like I fit the “Latino” box either, even if I physically look “Latin.” I was not raised by a Latin family, and I do not have the “cultural experiences” of someone who was. I used quotation marks because I do not think that I can generalize the different experiences of people with Colombian heritage, let alone the broader category of Latin heritage; however, I do think that this point stands because whatever experience I would have had being raised by Colombian parents would be different from how I was raised. So, I’m left not knowing what I should check.
It would feel ‘off’ to check “White.” I do not identity myself as a white person. Over the years, I’ve noticed the differences in the way that I experience the world and how others interact with me in comparison to my family. And, it would also feel ‘off’ to check “Hispanic/ Latino.” So, I’ve resolved to forever check “Other.” I’m okay with that?
One may say, okay, you figured it out. What’s the big deal? Just check “Other” and move on. There is some validity to this. What am I? I am “Other.” My experience doesn’t nicely fit into any of the boxes that I’m given, so I guess it’s described as “Other?” Being adopted from another country does make my background a bit odd, so I guess I’m “Other?” (Please read those lines with as much apprehension as I intended – in case you’re not sure, it is a lot.) Do I mind literally being the “Other” of society? I’m someone who can’t fit into a list, which names 6 categories – because we all know that all the different cultural and ethnic backgrounds of people in the world, except for the “Others” can be encompassed in just these 6 categories. Obviously, something feels really wrong about this.
Writing this post, I’m reminded of my friend from high school. When she was filling out her applications for college, she also didn’t know what to check. However, she was not adopted. She did not have ‘extenuating circumstances’ that make it ‘conceivable’ as to why she had trouble placing herself neatly into a box. My friend is Iranian. According to the Common Application she should check off “White.” The category reads, “White (including Middle Eastern).” At the time, I didn’t truly understand how reductive this categorizing and checkmark process is. I was used to seeing this format. It is commonly used for medical history forms. It seems super simple there. Have you ever broken a bone? Check yes or no. Do you have asthma? Etc. If yes please explain. However, there is something truly reductive about applying this same process to one’s identity. My friend explained to me that she does not consider herself to be white. This made sense to me, so I told her just to check “Other” and to write in Iranian. However, what haunts me now is her fear of looking “stupid” by not checking “White.” She explained that she didn’t want college admissions’ officers to think that she didn’t understand that Iran was part of the Middle East. After thinking about this, I realized how damaging these seemingly innocuous boxes could be. Even if there is a box ‘for you’ the label still fails to capture your identity. However, this failure is often not viewed as a failure of the form, but of the applicants, who may end up asking themselves am I inadequate? Why can’t I fit into one of these categories? Do I just not understand? Do I not fit because I’m just weird, odd, or off? However, how these categories are divided is pretty arbitrary. We’re going to divide people’s various backgrounds into 6 categories. We’ll leave a seventh category for those who don’t fit into these main 6. Why is the “Middle East” categorized as “White” and not “Asian?” Why doesn’t it have its own category? What is meant by “Original Peoples?” It’s worth questioning and wondering about how are these categories are drawn up?
Still, these categories serve a useful function. They allow companies and institutions to try to increase “diversity.” Ensuring that you hire or accept people with different life experiences is now possible by looking at checkmarks; you just have to hit the desired ratio for each checkbox. My description may be overly cynical, but there is something to be weary about when we reduce people’s experiences to categories, and we use these rigid categorizations to uphold divisions. This is not to question that there are real differences. Instead, I think that these categories obscure the multiple and varied experiences and backgrounds by clumping experiences together under categorical labels. I also question the harmful effects this process has on people who do not nicely fit in one of these categories. I’ve struggled with these “ethnicity boxes,” but I’m pretty sure that others struggle with different sections. For example, most applications ask for your gender; some present only M ☐ and F ☐ as options. If one is ‘lucky’ enough to have form with “Other” as an option, I can only wonder what the “other effect” feels like when gender is involved. The Common Application asks people to specify their religion. I’m sure that this is a sticky and blurry situation for many people. Again, we are people, not categories, not labels, not boxes, and not checkmarks. Lots of people occupy the spaces between these categories. Even when we do find a box to check, it may still feel insufficient.
I don’t mean to overlook the practical uses of these categories. This is an efficient way to increase diversity. Most companies and institutions do not have the time to read a long monologue on each applicant’s identity for each section or the time to devise their own system to compare these descriptions and ensure diversity. Further, most people don’t want to wrestle with what these labels mean to them. I know that most of the time, I’m okay with checking “Other.” It means I don’t really have to think about how I would identify myself. If I’m asked to fill something in, I just write ‘mixed’—however, I may be uncomfortable thinking about this question because I am thinking about it within the seemingly-rigid categorical terms presented to me. I do unthinkingly check “F,” without considering what, if anything, I mean by this. However, to simply check these boxes off without thinking about how they reduce the applicant, subject, person, is dangerous. To not question how these categories have been defined, divided, and organized is lazy.
Obviously, I do not claim to hold a moral high ground on filling out forms. I’m writing this in response to filling them out. I evidently filled out the Common Application to apply to Amherst, and I realize that I will almost definitely fill out more forms like these in the future. I even recognize the utility of these categories, but I’m just asking others to recognize their reductive, potentially damaging, and constructed qualities. These categories are possibly just as arbitrarily defined and insufficient as the categories I constructed in the beginning this post: people who are done with their internship applications, in the middle of them, just starting them, and haven’t started them. Think of how easy it was for me to choose the month of February as a defining month and put up divisions based on people’s position in their application process. It was so easy for me to divide all of us into groups of some of us. All of our various positions in the application process organized into four ‘comprehensive’ categories. You might not have bought this ordering, but if you did or didn’t notice it, it’s worth thinking about.
(Image courtesy of Flazingo Photos)