When I was maybe seven years old, I went to the beach with a group of people from my church. I was wading in the water at about shoulder-level, when I accidentally walked right into a large hole. As my feet plummeted downward, so, unfortunately, did my head. Shocked from the abruptness of the fall, I could not get enough of a bearing to actually start swimming — though I was at least smart enough to put my hands up so that they stuck out of the water, like little beacons.
One of the members of our party, an adult named Lenny, saw my hands and came over, lifting me out of the hole and placing me in more shallow water. I sputtered a bit, shyly thanked him, and then ran over to my mother, and as the story now goes down in history forever and ever, said, “Mumma, that dark man saved me!”
Lenny is Cape Verdean, a nationality which refers to the cluster of islands off the northwest coast of Africa. Cape Verdeans have skin tones ranging from light to dark, a result of the blend of African and Portuguese history of the country. While many darker-skinned Cape Verdeans identify as black, many of those living in the US take offense to being called African American. I’m sure there are a hundred different answers for what a Cape Verdean would categorize themselves as, depending on their own personal connection with their heritage… but to seven-year old Sam, Lenny was a “dark man”.
Labels are a funny thing. They are supposed to be a tool to identify, but so often they become tainted by social stigmas. There was a period of time growing up that I was afraid of identifying someone as black, in case it came off as insensitive — I would often resort to describing black friends as “the girl with the really big eyes” or “the guy who always wears a sports jersey” over calling them black, picking any feature over the most easily discernible one to help the conversant identify them. This is more embarrassing than calling someone a “dark man”… I was avoiding a person’s blackness by ignoring it.
This kind of “color blindness”, while intended to be inclusive, just made things worse: ignoring the way that someone identifies themselves is not doing them any favors. In fact, ignoring is sometimes the biggest slap in the face. So is mislabeling. Lenny doesn’t like being called African American; he identifies as Cape Verdean — though he never lived there, it is his heritage. Additionally, I used to work with a Brazilian black man who also hated being called African American — “I’m Brazilian,” he would say. He had lived the better part of his life in Brazil, and that was the cultural definer that he connected with.
I used to be a little bit embarrassed when my mother would tell the story of Lenny and me, but at some point I realized that at the time, all my brain was doing was reporting what my eyes saw. I didn’t understand the difference between African American and Cape Verdean, and for whatever reason, the word “black” didn’t even come to my mind — as a seven-year old, I was probably still thinking in terms of Crayola colors, and Lenny was certainly not black in that sense. And luckily, my label was not insinuating anything — just identifying. If I were to talk about how “every time I walk down the street in Harrisburg, some black man will ask me for a cigarette” (yes, man who came into the Cinema with this vendetta, I’m calling you out), that is an insinuation. There is a specific message that you are conveying by singling that imagined person out as black.
We’ve seen these insinuations scattered throughout daily interactions. Sometimes it’s verbal — as in the previous example, people will tack on a descriptor that incriminizes or targets someone, often without even realizing they’re doing it. Or maybe it’s a physical reaction — old ladies clutching their purses when a black man walks by, or a gas station attendant suddenly becoming more alert when someone walks into the store.
It is the same subconscious message officers send when they react differently to a black man than a white man at a traffic stop; it is the same subconscious message that people send when they see the flashing lights of a police car and immediately freeze up, regardless of what they’re doing. Humanity is known to attach extraordinary amounts of meaning to simple labels, whether they mean to or not.
So the original purpose of labels — to differentiate, or identify the unordinary — can easily be distorted. But what if we went back to the basics? What if we used labels to understand each other, to break down barriers? Sounds pretty contradictory. But whether it’s your race, gender, sexual orientation, or beliefs, labels can be a point of connection just as much as they can be an insinuation. If labels can be used as a construct for negative associations, they can also be used for the positive — they can be helpful in navigating your own world, in pinpointing what you personally identify with.
Sometimes people have a genuinely difficult time deciding which label they identify most with, and sometimes people don’t want to be labeled, period. So how do we know what to call someone?
We ask, guys.
This is actually more difficult than it sounds, because a lot of people worry about offending, or looking stupid by asking a question. But dialogue like this is kind of what it’s all about — it strips away stereotypes and gets people relating on a more personal basis.
I know I’ve talked about categorization multiple times in different blog posts, but this is an idea that I am kind of a fanatic about: putting people in boxes to understand them is not a bad thing. It’s when you keep that person in a box after you’ve made your analysis that is dangerous. So, for example, if I were to look at a black woman and say, “This woman is black,” then that tells me something about her. That hints about some aspects of her life — what interactions she may deal with on a regular basis, that she may use different hair products than me, etc. BUT. That in no way insinuates that by knowing she is black, I now know everything about her life — her upbringing, her world views, etc. That kind of assumption would be keeping this woman in the box — the stereotype. Many people dip their hands into many boxes, but those boxes do not singularly encapsulate who they are.
Asking someone how they would like to be identified is the first step in taking someone out of the box. The more we know each other — the more we humanize each other — the less likely it will be that we fall back on the stereotypes, and make inadvertant insinuations about someone. Maybe it will gain you a new friend. Maybe it will save a life.
Ask someone what they’d like you to know about them, instead of just assuming you already know. You may get a really fascinating conversation out of it.