Like many people, I need to describe the world around me.
To help me navigate the world, I describe the people and places and things that I encounter with labels; I try to seek out descriptors of only static (or near-static) qualities of the object being defined. These labels might contain one word or many words — whatever makes the label useful. For example:
- Milk = drink/ingredient, liquid/powdered, sweet, blueish white, common, mammalian product
- Lamp = bright/dark, barrier between human and lightbulb, consumes fuel
When combined, accurate labels help me to determine how I will interact with the labelled person or object, and help me to distinguish one object from another and different roles a person might have.
As a child, I struggled to describe objects which seem to change definition depending on the situation.
Eventually I realized that not all labels of an object are useful at all times in interacting with the object. For example, the fact that milk is blueish white is useful when distinguishing it from the gallon of orange juice in the fridge, but is not useful when using to make banana bread.
When it comes to labelling people, I’ve categorized several types of labels commonly assigned by society. The type of labels which I find most useful are physical labels: tall/short, skinny/fat, warm/cold hands, loud/quiet voice, and other descriptions of tangible or sensory qualities. I also find personality labels to be useful: introvert/extrovert, liar/trustworthy, respectful/not, and other descriptors of the intangible qualities each person possesses. Gender labels are still confusing to me.
I’ve changed my mind about the usefulness of racial and cultural labels.
I grew up in a lot of narrow-minded, isolated families: there were rarely People of Color at my churches; only a handful more attended my schools. Everyone I was encouraged to engage with spoke English as their first language. Everyone I knew worshipped the Christian god or kept quiet.
As I grew, I would wonder:
- Why are people with certain facial features or colorizations more or less worthy of respect?
- Why does it matter the color of a person’s hair, or eyes? Why does it matter about makeup or hairstyle?
- Why should the color of a person’s skin change the way you interact with them?
- Why is it important if someone uses different hygiene products or eats different foods than you do?
I didn’t see the point of using cultural or racial labels. I loved everyone, so it didn’t matter, right? Wrong.
Throughout my childhood, I deliberately sought out friendship with people who didn’t share my skin color, speak my language, or worship my god.
I found myself drawn to people who could teach me more about the world than the small part I had visited. I often found more inclusion from “other” people than I found in the circles I was raised to believe were better. I realized that the view of the world I had been taught was not complete: it certainly didn’t seem to be “best” by any sane measure I could find.
I questioned, loudly, frequently, disruptively, the standards:
- If someone doesn’t speak our language, what good does confronting them or screaming, in English, “Learn English!” do? Anyone can understand the hate behind the statement, I’m certain, no matter the language barrier.
- Why should someone’s accent be a bother, as long as you can understand what they’re saying when you just try? Does it make some people feel smarter just because they can say a few words the “right” way?
- Why does it matter which god someone worships? Isn’t faith the part that’s important?
- How does it impact me if someone else worships a different god (which I was taught would send them straight to Hell)? Should I avoid them on Earth since they won’t be in Heaven? What if I’m wrong and they’re right?
- Why don’t people who worship differently avoid us? Why don’t they proselytize us the same way we do them?
- Do people who are the same color always worship the same way? Where is the line drawn between acceptable colors and unacceptable when it comes to worship?
My understanding was that certain labels are primarily useful when describing criminal behavior.
As time passed, I noticed that racial and cultural labels were most often used when describing criminals, whether individuals or organizations. And these labels were mostly used to describe anyone not in the majority:
- Police are seeking a Black man last seen…
- So-and-So, a dark-skinned Islamic male is being investigated…
- Two drunken Native American males were killed while driving…
- Can you describe your attacker? Did they have any identifying characteristics? Did you notice anything outside the norm about them?
As a result, I began to associate anyone described by these labels with criminality.
This association of “different = criminal, dangerous, wrong” seems to be a deeply internalized, at times subconscious, belief in U.S. society, and probably many other societies around the world.
We know that People of Color have been systematically criminalized, displaced, excluded, and segregated, and oppressed in numerous other ways, for centuries, here in the States and around the world. The few POC who have “made it to the top” have done so by overcoming more obstacles and struggles than any White-skinned person in the same position. I wonder sometimes if each “successful” POC has not possibly overcome more obstacles than all the White-skinned persons in the same position.
It’s clear that this is a very damaging and divisive association.
When I became aware of this association in my own mind, I began to consciously reject any use of color, language, or religion descriptors when I was talking about other people. This wasn’t the right reaction.
With the renewal of the Black rights movement in the US, I am gaining a fuller understanding of the importance of recognizing a person’s color, as well as the importance of recognizing language and religion. By seeing a person’s skin color, and/or by recognizing their language and religion, you can gain a fuller understanding of some of the challenges this person has most likely faced.
By doing the work to truly see these aspects of each person, and by learning to first tolerate and then embrace their differences to you, you build trust, and you slowly begin to alter the future for the better for everyone.
White people, especially, need to work very hard at dispelling the belief that “different” is inherently “bad”.
I’d say that everyone needs to do this work, but it’s really hard to convince yourself that “different” is “okay” when you are still living in a world where you are considered less-than because of your differences. White people benefit from the sameness with other White people — we benefit from the oppression of “different”, whether we agree with it or not. That’s why we White people need to be the ones to bear the burden of this personal and societal change.
There are many activities we can do to change our training and alter our own bias.
- Recognize the tendency to equate “same” with “good” and “different” with “bad” in our own thought patterns, and call it out in others’ speech and writing.
- Deliberately seek positive exposure to people of other colors and cultural backgrounds that you already come into contact with.
- Read the narratives of men, women, and children, from as many different races and languages and religions as you can. Don’t forget to read historical narratives and speeches as well.
- Ask open-ended questions on forums and in appropriate spaces; engage in conversations about preconceptions around race, religion, and other cultural markers.
Now is not the time to challenge the beliefs or the narrative of others who are different to you.
Challenging the story you are hearing actively reinforces the concept you are trying to dispel. You may tell yourself that you are trying to understand more fully, but you are putting the burden of broadening your mind on the speaker, rather than on yourself. People of Color are tired of doing this work for you, White person.
As you do this work to investigate, root-out, and change your biases, remember that your first step is to take up as little space as possible, so that the teacher can take up more space. When you are taking up all the space, what room have you left for new ideas? There are no limits I have seen or experienced to how much a person can grow when they allow themselves to be small while they learn. By allowing yourself to be small for a time, you will gain a broader perspective of the world, and thus become a stronger, more resilient person for the rest of your life.
Your second step is to focus on the feelings of the speaker, rather than the veracity of the narrative. The exact and literal truth is a weapon we like to use to discredit those who have a valid story that we just don’t like to hear.
Your third step, which will usually follow naturally if you’ve correctly done the first two steps, should be to learn something you didn’t know. This is accomplished by listening, by being still and accepting another point of view.
Your fourth step is to make room for new feelings in your life. You will feel many things as you do this work to eradicate racism and cultural bias in your own heart, mind, and soul. You may feel angry, attacked, hopeless, powerless, hurt, or scared. Just remind yourself that those you have discriminated against, actively or by inaction, have felt all these things, and you will survive.
Finally, when you’ve sought to learn something, when you’ve made yourself small, when you’ve focused on the feelings of others, and when you’ve learned to process your own feelings, you must remember to do it all again and again, and again. This bias will find ways to creep back into your life.
Our work to eradicate racism and intolerance will never be done, but maybe we can make less work for the next generation.
You must keep at this, and teach it to your children. You are not too old to change — that is a feeble and weak-minded excuse. Your children should not bear the brunt of this work. Break the pattern. Give the next generation a head start in life, help to reduce the impact from centuries of discrimination. Take one more thing off the future generations’ to-do lists — they have enough to handle already.
Maybe, just maybe, we can leave our children a world that is a little better than the one our parents left us.