I’ve been waiting for two hours to turn in my Food Stamp application and talk with this, the gatekeeper of social services. She wades through and confirms all of my information line by line: Name, address, Social Security number.
She looks like uncannily like Teresa Covarrubias from the East LA punk band The Brat. I know it isn’t her, but can’t help but think of her as some other punk turned social worker (probably the fate of more than a few punks) working for the state and serving the public. Doesn’t seem like a bad gig either. I know more than a few punk teachers who love it, and I read somewhere that Exene is a librarian.
Feeling warm toward her, as an imaginary punk, I interrupt to ask her name. I feel like it’s the polite thing, she knows who I share food with so I might as well ask her name, but she is awkwardly surprised and skeptical. She stares at me for a moment, and then says, “Just call me ‘lady’.”
I feel momentary embarrassment for crossing some kind of unspoken line, but we are right back to my application, moving forward as if I never said a word to her. She is inputting my information into her computer when we hit the stumbling block. Ethnicity.
"It will only let me check one."
“I’m pretty sure at least one of the forms said ‘check all that apply’ for that portion,” I say shifting from foot to foot on tired legs.
She is still staring at the screen, brows furrowed, not hearing me. “I just don’t know what you do in this case.”
Looking around the room at all the people, thinking of the volume of people this woman has assisted, I could not imagine I was her first mixed person. It seemed a statistical impossibility. An involuntary flush began rising in my cheeks. I’ve been waiting a long time; I’m tired and, well, hungry.
“This doesn’t affect how much I get in benefits right? Can we just check “other” or something? What do people usually check?” I ask, hoping this doesn’t take longer than it has to.
“They pick one, sometimes they say you are supposed to side with the mother. But it is self-identifying.”
“What happens if I don’t want to pick?” I ask, starting to feel like I just want to leave.
“The county will do it for you,” she says matter-of-factly, looking up at me.
So much for self identifying.
As of the 2000 census the county where I live, Alameda County, had 1,443,741 people living in it, of which 5.63% were of two or more races. Even with statistics almost a decade old Alameda county had somewhere in the neighborhood of 81,000 mixed race people, and still Social Services has no way easy way to categorize them? The “mark all that apply” option is usually the best in terms of inclusion, so why not make it so in their internal system? Why this checkbox category system to begin with?
Sure, for Social Services, the need to collect data is understandable. They are trying to answer pragmatic questions: Which communities are underrepresented and in need of more outreach? Are there languages other than the ones they are offering that they need to hire translators for? Etc., etc.
But if their forms aren’t dynamic enough to really represent people, isn’t it flawed data to begin with? If people simply have to choose one, won’t our understanding of others and ourselves stay as stagnant as the forms we must fill out?
The human impulse to categorize isn’t limited to race/ethnicity. It’s in gender, sexuality, class, and for many the fewer categories the better. For a long time the dominant paradigm saw the world as such: man/woman, straight/queer, white/not-white, rich/poor, Christian/godless, good/bad. Things have certainly gotten more complicated, but instead of understanding that the system of categorization was the problem, we have simply added more categories. As if there ever be enough categories to explain or encompass what we really are. Sometimes try to rephrase our category to be more positive, something we can own, but even that isn’t all that empowering. It also has a tendency to reinforce the idea that you are born with certain characteristics, and that they do not and cannot change over time. That your sexuality cannot vary and shift and grow with age, that your gender cannot also be ebbing and flowing more toward one end of the spectrum or another across your lifetime. We are made to choose, and when we choose, we are expected to stay. Like good dogs.
It’s usually only those who fall between or outside of these categories who see them for the human inventions they really are.
“Lady” surprises me with a personal aside, but it’s almost like she is speaking to herself. “My husband is from Ukraine, and my family is Mexican and Filipino… my children are mixed too. It seems silly that they won’t know what to check. Okay, I know what to do. I want you to check “other,” but we are going to write everything in the margin, and I will input it in the comments and show to my boss.”
She handed me a stubby little pencil and I wrote as small as I could in the margin. In alphabetical order: Apache (Junimano), Basque, Catalan, English, Scottish, Yaqui.
It felt good. Once the need to categorize was eliminated I could for the first time in my life spell them all out. One by one, each portion of “makeup.” As soon as I had, I felt how arbitrary they were. Little pieces of the past, people and places no longer remembered, collected together. I had thought the world at large was just too lazy to understand, and for my whole life, even I had labeled myself in order to make it simpler for others to understand. Now it seemed like just stories about people no longer remembered, with no real ties to my life.
I crossed out my little list and wrote “fuck you” below it.
When I handed it back to her, lady laughed, and dutifully typed “fuck you” into the comments field. Maybe she was a little bit punk after all.