Citizens of the World

The cards were inconspicuous enough.  Several small slips of yellow cardboard piled neatly at the end of our pew, silently asking for information.  “What are the respective ages of you and those family members attending this mass?” it read.   Behind us, Ms. Pat, our next-door neighbor whispers while the collection baskets circulate among the congregation.

“Better fill this thing out guys.  I usually forget this nonsense, but if they don’t meet their quota, they’ll cancel 7:30 mass.  You know what that means . . .”

Yeah, hymns and singing at the 10:30 mass three hours later.  The senior congregation replaced by screaming children, guitar recitals, and hour-long prayer service.  Or worse.  Over the past month, the Arch-Diocese of Baltimore has closed several prominent Catholic schools throughout the county; the adjoining parish elementary school Holy Family, my alma mater, will cease to exist come this fall.  In these tough economic times, small parishes with low attendance might follow suit during the next year.  God might be omnipotent, but His temples survive through the generosity of the people.  And the people were beginning to tuck in.

I checked my age and those of the boys in the suitable boxes and turned over the ballot: “Please check off your respective nationality . . .”    I stifled a curse.  The card listed the usual and sundry list of races: white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Eskimo, Native American, and – for those Venusian parishioners – Other, followed by a few helpful lines.

According to my aunt, we possess some Powahatan blood on my mother’s side.  So should I check off Native American?  Or is the color of my skin the important factor here?  Does my sister’s spray-on tan grant her minority status?  Wise-ass comments aside, when will we learn that if indeed race is a meaningless and petty factor, why is it still a bureaucratic one?

Sometime during the last thirty years, Americans have grown accustomed to this racial classification: pigeon-holing ourselves and each other into neat orderly cells.  Never mind the cultural differences between Ireland and Russia; pale skin equals ‘white.’  As I stared at the census form, I realized how desperately I detested the term.  I’m an Irish American, fool.  Where’s my checkbox?  Why does the Arch-diocese of Maryland care whether I have white skin, black hair, red eyes, blue teeth, or three arms?  How does that affect anything or anyone?  When did ‘American’ become insufficient?

Last year a friend of mine related a story of South African kid, whose family had emigrated sometime when he was twelve to the States.  He performed well in high-school but as graduation loomed and college applications came pouring from the mailbox, the guy found himself in the midst of a legal battle.  It seems that the young Afrikaner, checked off ‘African-American’ in his application to a prestigious school, who had accepted him for a soccer scholarship.  Yet, the faculty was none-too-pleased to find that their new goalie was as pale as an Irish monk.  They threatened to sue for fraud, but after a lengthy legal battle dropped all charges and the scholarship.

Political correctness has failed, turning on itself like all cowards at the first sign of trouble.  “No, I’m sorry.  When we asked whether you were ‘African,’ we did not mean to suggest from Africa.  Yeah, we meant ‘black’ . . .” And of course, ‘black’ has become taboo as well.  The words flounder because they were created to conceal, to disguise not to describe anything or anyone – not honestly at least – and like all clever make-up, the paint washes clean in the rain.  We see political correctness for what it is: bias, ignorant, and scared.

Bureaucratic language that misleads and distorts?  Hardly, a surprise there.  The real question  is whether any bureaucracy (either government or educational) truly needs to know any details about your culture or race.  What does it gain from it? Furthermore, can they even record such niceties accurately?  Multicultural families in today’s society are on the rise.  New generations of Americans cannot be stuffed easily in one particular genus or culture.  My dad for instance prides himself on his sundry collection of genes: Italian, German, Polish, Irish, Spanish, and even a little Native American as well.  Surely, there are families today with even greater genetic variance.  Yet in the last census, the only option for my father was ‘white.’ Hell, ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘Southern Europe’  would be better than that.  At least it names a frickin’ place.

With the growing importance of the digital self, do we really need to qualify our race to the world anymore?  As gas prices rise and technology expands the boundaries of social media, an average bread-winner can spend minimum hours physically interacting with people.  Saturday night parties have become raid parties in World of Warcraft; dating tools connect people from half-a-continent away; I can carry out my banking without ever putting on my pants (sorry . . . bad visual image there).  Moreover, the internet provides the canvas for how you see yourself, whatever that may be: artist, writer, architect, gambler, or orc shaman.

Or Catholic.  If we’re all connected in this community of faith, why should anyone care about race anyway?  Why does the Church care what ‘types’ of people its message reaches?  What does it matter to God?

Still it’s the same everywhere.  We teach our children about ‘equality’ yet continue to segregate ourselves on paper.  Racism will always endure until our nation (or even humanity) becomes more important than our nationality.  But we first need to emancipate the databases.  That’s the first step.  Perhaps if we all began checking off ‘Other’ more often, maybe the forces-that-be will get the hint.  Be as specific as possible if you can.  Fill in those little blanks with Canadian Asian, French Brazilian, or African Eskimo-Scot.

Or if your genetic makeup is as cluttered as my father’s, simply write ‘American.’   Or — for those more universally minded — ‘Human.’  For our part my family chooses to keep it simple: ‘Drunkard.’  And to paraphrase Claude Rains, that would indeed make us all ‘Citizens of the World.’


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