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Finding Ourselves in Our Stereotypes

The labels we use to categorize people define us, not them. They do more to determine our morality than any creed we might declare. We cannot do away with labels; but we can learn from them ... if we go about it in the right way.

Good Dog

One lazy, sunny day, American author, Robert Persig, was hiking a footpath in the back country of a Cheyenne reservation in South Dakota. John Wooden Leg, the tribe’s chief, was guiding the way for Persig and a woman companion. A dog sauntered past them, and as quickly disappeared into the brush. The woman turned to the Chief. “What kind of dog is that?” she asked.

Chief John deliberated.  After a moment’s thought, he replied, “It’s a good dog.” He turned to resume their walk.

Persig reports that his mind fairly exploded at this reply.  We Westerners, he thought, lay claim to the world by dividing it into categories. This a bird; that is a mammal. This is a dachshund; that is a poodle. He is a Muslim; she is a Jew.

We Westerners tend to associate knowledge and sophistication with a command of categories. If you want to understand someone or something, find the right label.  Does a label not quite fit?  No problem.  Add another label to your lexicon.  Now you are smarter.

The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, famously described this approach in his essay, “Categories”.  A maple tree, said Aristotle, is a maple, which is part of the larger category, tree.  Trees are part of the even larger category of of plants, and plants of living things. 

The hierarchical nature of Aristotle’s model is significant. If a tree is part of the category of living things, then it must, by definition, contain all of the essential qualities of living things and must follow their natural laws. Aristotle used these hierarchical categories to “prove” that women and slaves were by nature inferior to free men.  This was natural law.  It was therefore right and natural to treat such people as property.

For two thousand years, the Catholic Church and crowns of Europe exploited Aristotle’s notion of hierarchical categories to control the world. You could be flogged for wearing the colors of a nobleman. You could be horsewhipped for entering by the wrong door. In the United States, we perfected this practice into an art form, neatly relegating anyone who wasn’t white, Christian, and male to an inferior category. We used this distinction to justify their enslavement, the appropriation of their property, and the destruction of their families and neighborhoods.  

We Westerners can, in fact, trace our fetish for labels all the way back to Creation. “And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and He brought them to the man to see what he would name each one. And whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:19).

When reading this recently, I noticed something that had hitherto escaped my attention. It says, each one, not each type. When you love something, you give it a name. When you prepare it for slaughter, harvest, or study, you give it a label. We assume that Adam named a fox a fox. But who is to say that he didn’t call it, “Charlie”?

We label people in order to dehumanize and control them. Chief John Wooden Leg was not raised in a culture governed by Aristotelian logic. He did not reduce the dog to a species, a size, or a color. He intuitively focused on what he considered to be its most essential quality: its goodness.

The Labels We Use Hide Others’ Humanity … While Revealing Our Own 

My generation derides millennials for their use of emoticons and texting abbreviations. We accuse them of dumbing down the language with smiley faces and terms like LOL and BFF. But we use emoticons, too. We simply disguise them as words. We label someone a Mexican or a Black as though it defines something essential about them.

Such labels are worse than emoticons. Sending someone a smiley face may not capture my feelings with eloquence and precision. But it does describe my feelings. And it doesn’t pretend to be eloquent or precise.

Labeling someone Latino uses a shorthand that robs them of their humanity.  Does knowing that someone is gay tell me anything about their honesty? Their intelligence? Their work ethic? Their love of family? Does it tell me whether they are loving, funny, or loyal?

And what of the label, Christian?  In the United States, it is often used in an attempt to distinguish those who are morally upright from those who are inherently corrupt.  If I have learned anything in my lifetime, it is that someone’s professed religion tells me nothing about their morality. 

The social labels we use do not define the person we seek to label.  They define the person and the society doing the labeling.  Labels are the ultimate selfie.

When I describe someone as Black, I am either revealing my own racism or acknowledging the racist society I live in — or both. The only reason that it is important to label Martin Luther King Black is because of the prejudice and injustice that our culture has heaped upon people of color. The only reason that I need to understand his “blackness” is because our society made it an issue.  He didn’t.

Every day, our actions are guided by questions of labeled identity. Are you male or female? Black or white? Christian or Muslim? Liberal or conservative? Are you tall? Beautiful? Old? Gay? How we label one another plays a major role in how we regard and treat each other.

Our media and our leaders thrive on labels that appeal to our basest fears. “Let’s wall off the Mexicans . . .” “Let’s ban all Muslims …” “Let’s criminalize the gays …”. Tall men are often assumed to be better leaders and more intelligent – especially if they are white. Pretty, dainty-looking women are assumed to have pretty, dainty thoughts.

Are all Muslims bad or angry? Not by a long shot. Are all Christians good family people? Hardly. And yet this is how our sound-bite driven leaders and our media try to manipulate us. And we allow them to.

Can We Live Without Labels?

As a transgender woman, I have had to think about labels a lot.  A few years ago I wondered, if labels are so hurtful, could I get rid of them?  I decided to give it a try.

I was thinking about my son at the time.  Cam is an impressive young man. He is  pursuing a future in writing, film and Asian studies. What, I wondered, would happen if I removed the words “my” and “son” from this wonderful being whom I had fathered into the world?

At first, the mere idea of such a thought-experiment horrified me. How could I disown my son, even in idle thought?  Was I venturing into something that ought to remain unthinkable? Was I removing an intimacy between us? Was I dishonoring Cam by even considering such a notion?

It proved to be the opposite. When I began to regard this young man without these labels, my mind opened to so many new possibilities within him. What an extraordinary person! What a complicated soul. I realized, too, that there were a million things that I did not know about Cam, largely because they had nothing to do with him being my son.

“My” and “son”, I suddenly realized, referred to me. They literally define Cam in terms of me.  I love Cam all the more dearly for having considered him without these labels. And I find myself eager to get to know him more fully. I still describe him as my son. But I realize now that I am describing my pride, not his person-hood.

I have repeated this experiment with my other children, with my wife, my parents, and siblings. It leaves me eager to know each of them for who they are and who they aspire to be. It focuses my attention on what I don’t know about them, rather than what I think I know.

I conduct this experiment regularly now — with people at work, with my neighbors, with people I meet at parties. I find the same thing: I know almost nothing about other people except for their labels. I know their profession, their education, their nationality. I know their accent, religion, political party, gender, and color. But I know little of their hopes, desires, passions, and fears. I know little of their hidden talents and secret guilts. Most of what I “know” about them is extrapolated from the labels I use. And the meaning I give to each label describes me, not them.

Labels Can Be The Start of Learning and Moral

I don’t think it possible to do away with labels. Much as I enjoy my little thought experiment, it is too demanding and time-consuming to conduct routinely. Labels are a necessary mental short-hand.

But there is something we can do. We can use our labels to learn about ourselves.

I continue to label people. But, rather than assume that my labels describe the other person, I ask myself what they say about me. My labels describe what I love, hate, and fear. They highlight what I focus on and what I overlook.  They reveal how I have been taught to filter the world. The labels I use tell me a lot about myself. They tell me next to nothing about other people.

If am walking through an iffy neighborhood and see a tall, black man in a hoody, I confess: I feel a momentary fright. And that’s OK – so long as I learn the right thing from it:  My reaction tells me next to nothing about that man. For all I know, he is a classical violinist from London who is trying to blend in for his own safety. And even here, why did I just choose “violinist” and “London” to describe someone who feels safe to me? Once again, I am revealing my own prejudices and experiences. A paragraph later, and we still know nothing of this man. We only know something of my failings.

The labels we use to stereotype people define our blindness to the humanity within one another. Our labels also profoundly influence our morality. 

When we describe our morality, we tend to do so by referring to a creed or a set of principles. Christians wave their Bible.  Americans recite the Declaration of Independence.

The problem with this is that we generally apply our principles only to those we consider our equal and a part of our sphere.  We filter our morals when applying them to anyone else.  We rationalize that this is their fault.  We treat them differently because of who and what they are are.  In fact, we do so because of our stereotypes. The way we label people affects our treatment of them more so than our professed beliefs.  

Do you want to be a moral person? Then look closely at the labels you use.  If your labels are false, then your practiced morality is corrupt.  You are no more moral than your stereotypes.

The same holds true for our country.  America was founded on a soaring ideals coupled with despicable prejudices. We will never achieve our wonderful aspirations until we can see past our labels. 

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Tina White

Tina White

Tina White is the Executive Director of the Blue Ridge Pride Center, in Asheville, North Carolina, and a member of the board of directors for the Human Rights Campaign.

Tina spent 35 years consulting to and working for global corporations. Her specialty was large-scale business transformation: redesigning companies to pursue new strategies and improve performance. She has since shifted her focus to activism, writing and speaking. She speaks and writes on issues of diversity & inclusion, organization transformation, social justice, and personal identity.

Tina is the author of Between Shadow and Sun. She describes her 50-year struggle with gender and her wife's efforts to embrace her revealed identity. She holds an MBA in Strategy, Marketing & Finance from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and an AB in Economics from Princeton University. She and Mary live in Asheville, North Carolina.

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