Essayist Reflects on Breaking Out of Boxes in Society

November 9, 2006 at 6:50 PM EDT

CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: We are born into boxes. Our box defines us by gender, color, religion, ethnicity, nationality, and on and on. Sooner or later, we begin to think outside the box.

We quickly realize that our box is surrounded by other boxes. And we get a choice: We can stay in our little box or take a big risk.

The box is how we define our identity. If we don’t have a box that we’re born into, we’ll get together and build one, or more than one. It’s easier to stay in the box, unless our box is under attack.

A lot of the news these days is about people from one box in conflict with people from another: Shiites versus Sunnis; Republicans versus Democrats; Muslim women who wear veils versus those who don’t wear veils; true Christian believers versus those who aren’t sure of what they believe.

As a black male Christian-American, I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately, about the way people find each other and band together. The allure of identity showed itself poignantly when protests erupted at Gallaudet University, the premiere university for the deaf here in Washington, D.C.

Students and faculty rose up over who was going to be the college’s new president. But for many of us outsiders, the most intriguing issue was the galvanizing power of deaf culture, the social and emotional values that unifies much of the non-hearing community.

The deaf community has long been divided, between the lip readers and the signers, those who use ASL, American Sign Language. Many cherish their silent world as special enough to be worth preserving, even when today’s science offers them or their children a chance to escape.

Modern medical technology has offered the power of hearing to many of the deaf, thanks to the cochlear implant. Heather Whitestone McCallum, the first deaf Miss America, had the device implanted a few years ago. Now, she says, she can hear her children laugh.

But the device is controversial. By reducing the numbers of the deaf, the cochlear implant poses an ironic threat to deaf culture. Deaf community stalwarts call it “cultural genocide.”

Dealing with new dilemmas

WOMAN: Everything makes a sound.

CLARENCE PAGE: The dilemma is captured in the six-year-old documentary "Sound and Fury," about a deaf family. Mom, Dad and their three children speak in sign language. The daughter, Heather, wants a cochlear implant. She wants to hear, but her parents resist strongly.

"We're afraid," says her mother, that the device "will change her identity." "Yes," the daughter seems to be saying. "That's the whole point."

In this one family, we see the modern American dilemma. New generations still face the same-old questions: Can you swim in the mainstream, yet keep your box?

In fact, you can do both. The box should not be a prison, but a platform, a place where, even if you can't hear, you can make yourself heard.

I'm Clarence Page.