Monday, 27 September 2010

Little Boxes

The other day I had to get my daughter registered at a new school. We sat together in the deputy headmaster's office and filled out a lengthy form.

"Uh oh," groaned my daughter, pointing to Nationality, "I always hate this one."

"Just put Other British," said the deputy headmaster promptly.

"But I can't," she said. "Because I'm not really British."

I craned my neck to look. The categories for Nationality were Scottish, British (Other), and Other.

"Then British, Other," the deputy headmaster said, raising an eyebrow and looking at her surreptitiously.

"But I'm not only British." She glanced at me meaningfully.

The deputy headmaster took a deep breath. "But you were born here."

My daughter shook her head. "I was born in Japan."

"Put down British (other) and add 'American'," I suggested.

My daughter did this, then she groaned again. "I hate this one too!"

I took a look. Ethnicity was next. I can't even remember all the choices, but there were quite a few: British (Scottish), British (English), British (Black -- Caribbean), British (Black -- African), British (Asian), European, and British (other -- please specify).

"Surely you can find one there that best fits you," the deputy headmaster sighed, looking at his watch.

"A lot of them sort of fit me," my daughter said proudly, "but I'm not only one."

I think we settled for British (other) again, but decided not to specify. The deputy headmaster looked happy to see the back of us.

On our way back home, my daughter was a little quiet. "You're okay about that nationality and ethnicity thing, aren't you?" I asked.

My daughter shrugged. "I envy the people who can say 'I'm Scottish' or 'I'm Chinese'. But sometimes I feel proud that I'm lots of different things."

When I come to think about it, though, very few of my daughter's friends can say they are only one nationality or ethnicity. At her last school, most of my daughter's classmates were Turkish. There, her friends were invariably 'others': a Filipino/Spanish girl who looked Chinese and spoke Hebrew, a Palestinian girl who spoke Arabic but called herself Israeli, a Turkish Cypriot girl born and raised in the U.K. Even at the school she is attending now which at first glance appears to be all white and Scottish, there are a handful of kids who were born in England, who have one or even both parents from Europe or Asia or Africa. This year there are more 'others' than there were two years ago, and when I compare the number to what it was ten years ago, the increase is even more remarkable.

In fact, fewer and fewer people fit neatly into any one category anymore. I'll bet those people who racked their brains to come up with all the different options for Nationality and Ethnicity thought they'd exhausted all the possibilities.

It's getting complicated. Ten years from now, it will be even more so. Twenty years from now, very few people in the U.K. or U.S. will be just one nationality or ethnicity. Thirty years from now -- I hope I live long enough to see it.

And I wonder how they'll modify those forms.

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30 comments:

Robin said...

I don't like that question on applications and forms. It's hard to think of a way it could be used positively. They should let kids explain their ethnicities. For example, "My mom was born in Russia but raised in Italy. My Dad was born in Korea, but has US citizenship. I was born in Australia, but raised in Japan, and have dual citizenship in Japan and the US." Let them figure it out themselves.

Charles Gramlich said...

Just wait until the true aliens land. But that might simplify the whole thing. Two boxes.

Human
Other.

Until the first "Mr. Spock" comes along.

Miss Footloose said...

This was a fun read. It really is getting more confused for many people. My husband and I are Caucasian, but our adopted son is (very) black, Brazilian by birth. His new birth certificate states us as his parents and his race as Caucasian, I kid you not. I'd be surprised if he has a drop of Caucasian blood in him.

When he has to fill in forms, it gets interesting. Is he an African American? Latino? Caucasian?

Let's hope we can stop worrying about it soon.

Anyway, your experiences gave you a fun story to tell!

Kim Ayres said...

The forms are superficially easy for me, as I was born in the UK and so were all the generations back before me that I've been able to trace.

But I can't say I feel a particular loyalty to this country. I'd much rather be put down as European or, even better, just human

e said...

I always have a bit of trouble with these things as I was born in one country, raised in another part of the world and wish there were no borders so that people could simply live where they felt most at ease.

Vijaya said...

Yeah, dumb forms. They have to do it to say how multi-cultural we are. I like Charles' idea. Human/Other.

meredith said...

I am wondering how you can tell the difference from a British-Scottish and a British-English ethnicity?

Here, I just check French for my girls, even though that's probably the nationality with the least amount of blood running through their veins...

meredith said...

Oh,
I love Miss Footloose's situation. You'd think that would make the guys creating the boxes to check rethink their system.

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- In America, I ALWAYS check 'other' or 'decline to state'. I know that they just want a rough idea of the general ethnic breakdowns, etc. -- they aren't just being nosy. But it still irritates me and unless someone can give me a really good reason for listing my ethnicity or nationality, I enjoy being vague. My kids' situation isn't really all that complicated comparatively speaking, but it gets funny when people ask us where we're from. My kids immediately say "Scotland!" before my husband or I can start in with "Well, I was born in...but she was born in..." for all five of us.

Charles -- Am I cynical to imagine that once the aliens get wind of our ways, they'll start in on it too? I can picture aliens boasting that they were born on the first mother ship on its first voyage to earth, others topping that by saying they were born in the colonies during the first eon -- and so on. And yes: once they found a way to combine alien and human DNA the fun would really start and there'd be all sorts of new boxes.

Sigh...

Miss Footloose -- Your situation reminds me a little of a family I knew in Japan. They were Caucasian Americans, but their kids all spoke Japanese as a first language, and in some cases, as an ONLY language, including one of their adopted sons, a boy of mixed African heritage, who I believe was born in the Middle East. I can't begin to think what he put down on his forms. I used to teach him English and it was great fun to see the amazement he aroused in Japanese strangers whenever he spoke his highly idiosyncratic, 100% fluent Japanese.

Kim -- But think of it: you are English, born and raised in Wales, married to a Scot and living in Scotland. You're already there!

I've put down 'human' in the race box before. It didn't amuse or impress anybody, but it made me feel better.

e -- But I'll bet people want to know which country you consider your true home, don't they? People are always asking our kids which country they are going to choose to settle in and what nationality they really consider themselves to be. I'm pretty sure I did it to people before myself.

Vijaya -- On one hand, I know that it's considered necessary to get an idea of how many people of a certain background live in a certain area. On the other, I can't help but feel as though we're all being pushed into so many boxes. Suddenly I'm not just me, I'm defined by two categories I never even think about half the time. Whatever the case, it can't last. Soon, there won't be enough space to list all the options for 'other'.

Meredith -- You can't, really! We know a couple of people here who sound 100% Scottish and are thought to be Scottish by everybody around them, but they are, in fact, English. Even the people who insist that they're Scots through and through would be surprised if they ever checked their family trees.

You have to list your daughters as 'French' with no other options? So they're not so different from the U.K., I suppose. In our family, apart from our acquired daughter, I'm the one with the most Scottish blood. But I'm also the one without a U.K. passport.

Angela Ackerman said...

See, this is what I love about living in Canada and it being a multicultural society. We're simply Canadian, not any one ethnicity. Schools don't ask.

The only questions they do ask is the language spoken at home (important for school communication) and if children are Native American (important for funding). That's it! :)

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Bish Denham said...

I think we need to get rid of all these catagories. We are human beings, we are whatever nationality (not race) we happen to be, American, British, French, Russian, South African etc.

That said, one possible solution to this "problem" of ethnicities is to let people describe themselves. I for example would describe myself as Euro-West Indian/Caucasian Puerto Rican.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I once filled in "Earthling" in one of those categories on a form. They made me change it.

AnneB said...

Heavens, but I feel boring: 3/4 Irish-American, 1/4 Pennsylvania Dutch (immigrants from Germany--Deutschland--who settled in Pennsylvania)

Mary Witzl said...

Angela -- Sigh...Canada has it right. People here seem quite affronted when you question the need to state nationality or ethnicity on forms. When you fill out some job applications here, they actually ask for your sexual orientation. I always check 'decline to state' because there isn't an option for 'none of your goddamn business'.

Nobody at our daughters' school has asked us what languages we speak at home -- and it's a pity -- we'd love to tell them.

Bish -- Ooh -- that's a good combination! I've done my genealogy too and there's just not enough space on the forms for it all. Which is why 'other' is so handy.

Robert -- I haven't used 'earthling' yet, but you can bet I will. Whenever they ask for my race instead of my ethnicity, I make sure to write 'human'.

AnneB -- I'm part Pennsylvania Dutch too, and plenty Irish. I'll bet if you did your genealogy, you'd find that you had a lot more hiding in there. I know my parents weren't aware of half of the stuff we were.

Anonymous said...

You got me stressed out here. Why did you have to register her at a new school? What happened? --- Güzin

Mary Witzl said...

Güzin -- The school moved, remember? And she has to re-register after being out for so long. And nobody seems to remember anything about us!

laura said...

I hope that someday those questions will be irrelevant. We are what we are, and from what I can figure out, we are all human beings.

Medeia Sharif said...

Wow, so many categories on that form. We don't have as many here, but I know there's confusion. Hopefully, these forms and categories will become simplified.

Postman said...

I think that's wicked cool, not being able to decide what to call yourself. I have the greatest fun trying to figure out how to label an atheist-conservative-half-German-quarter-Dutch-minarchist like myself.

So apparently I'm WAY behind. You've gone from Japan to Turkey to BRITAIN, now?!?!

Eryl said...

I am so hoping that these questions disappear soon, the justification for them doesn't stand up to scrutiny, and they are a waste of paper, ink, and time.

I like your daughter's attitude though, so am kind of glad the questions still exist for the story.

Mary Witzl said...

Laura -- That would be great, wouldn't it? For the time being, I'm afraid we're stuck with them, but maybe my grandchildren will live long enough to see those boxes disappear.

Medeia -- There were more categories, actually, and I was tempted to copy them all down just so I wouldn't forget them. I can see why it's useful to know what the ethnic breakdown is for a given area, but I can also see that it's a real pain in the neck to answer these questions and squeeze ourselves into tight little boxes.

Postman -- I've got German and Dutch in me too. But then I've probably got a little kitchen sink in me too...

Actually, in the past 18 years we've been from Wales to Japan to Scotland to North Cyprus to Turkey and back to Scotland, and we were a few places individually before that. But you'll get to all of those places too -- in fact you can probably FLY there!

Eryl -- I just hope the human race lasts long enough for these questions to become impractical. I'm not idealistic to think that we won't still find things to fight over once nationalities and ethnicities blur, but who knows? -- blending DNA amicably might help resolve conflicts and it would certainly do away with those boxes.

Murr Brewster said...

I've heard that when we get enough mutt in us, our tails curl up.

Mary Witzl said...

Murr -- That's a good one -- and I'm betting that's what happened to my tail.

Blythe Woolston said...

I wonder what the value of this information is. I know that it might be used to allocate funds to schools here in the US--to justify the need for multi-lingual instruction, for example, but this crazy level of generalization seems a loopy and goofy way to determine need. How will the school be better able to serve your daughter after she has been sorted into those boxes that don't quite, really fit?

Pat said...

Does your daughter get any advantages like two passports?
That could be useful. I'm sure the whole experience she has had at a young age will prove an advantage at some stage. And I'll wager she'll appreciate being a little different.

Carole said...

I have always despised that question. I just plain don't see the relevance for it.

Falak said...

What on earth does education have to do with the ethnicity of a person? Its like how we have to fill in what caste we are from here in India. And then they talk about equality.

Falak said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mary Witzl said...

Blythe -- I'm not entirely sure, but I think they need this information so that the authorities can determine whether we are cosmopolitan or not. I believe that schools get extra funding if they're ethnically diverse. We're not alone in this: in Japan, my husband actually got extra money for every single foreign, i.e. non-Japanese, student he taught. But it still doesn't make sense to me.

Pat -- There are a lot of advantages to being bi-cultural, and our kids do have two passports each, but we have to pay for them -- and it means they have an extra one to lose. ;o) All in all, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, but those forms are still a real headache.

Carole -- Do you put 'human' in the race box too? I love Robert's idea of 'earthling'. Next time I fill in a race box, I'm going for that.

Falak -- Do you still have to fill in your caste in India? I had no idea!

In the U.S. and the U.K., people don't think in terms of caste, but there are still subtle ways to figure out what class someone comes from. In the States, our caste is pretty much determined by neighborhood, clothes, cars, and the kinds of gadgets we can afford. In the U.K., the neighborhood you live in is a big factor, but so is the way people talk.

Ethnicity is just another complication, but you're right -- I don't really see the need for distinguishing.

planetnomad said...

big sigh. I don't get the reason for all the little boxes either. (I mean, I know their reasons...)
I grew up kind of all over, and I used to hate it when people asked me where I was from. Then I decided to simplify and choose. "Oregon," I say now. And voila! no stress. Unless people say, "Where did you grow up?" I suspect your kids will do the same at some point. (It took me until my 30s to figure this out though; and to feel comfortable just stating Oregon as my original home although I wasn't born here)