That America’s dividedness has become a prominent topic of discussion is evident. And it’s probably a good thing. But somehow I feel this is wrought with misunderstanding, and that lies in the assumption that division – our “otherness” to each other – is somehow a new development.

It has always been there, my friends, it just hasn’t been at the forefront of the national psyche, forced there by the events of this summer (brought into agonizingly sharp relief by the murder of George Floyd) and the daily onslaught of crude, inflammatory rhetoric from those who should be uniting us (this needs no explanation). And so people tend to retreat to their corners, operating under the safety of the company of others who share the same label.

Labels are interesting. They shift, go in and out of acceptance, change as those who suffered under an external label strive to self-identify. And this self-determination inspires me; everyone should be called what they want to be called.

Then there are other labels that are imposed. Not what we want, but what they want.

The sign of a woke person in this day and age is to be up on your acceptable labels. Latinx, for example. Inclusive, gender neutral. Ok great. But do people seem to care that, as of a 2019 Pew Research Center study, less than a quarter of those who identify as Hispanic or Latino have heard of this term? And that only 3% would label themselves Latinx? Is it perhaps a label that serves the labelers more than the label?

Then there’s BIPOC. For those of you who’ve not yet encountered this term, it’s an acronym for Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Advocates of this label argue that Black and Indigenous people have suffered and continue to suffer disproportionate injustice in the US, an observation with which I would absolutely agree. 

But then there is the big lump of us POCs – Asian,  Pacific Islander…Latinx. Each with our individual experiences of prejudice and discrimination, huddled together under the same umbrella. I understand the desire to simplify an acronym, and the challenge of finding terminology to be as inclusive as possible, but…

And then, did you know that the US Census Bureau considers people from Southwest Asia, the Middle East or North Africa to be “white”? 

I’m going to let you chew on that for a while.

And then there’s the whole notion that BIPOC represents everyone who is non-white. I realize that this is a distinction meant to point out both the white majority and the history of white privilege. BIPOC has an implication of “otherness”.

Did you know the that very same US Census Bureau projects that by 2045 white Americans will no longer be the majority, but will become “minority white”? Do they then become NPOCs – Not Persons of Color?

I don’t mean to add instigation to a topic that already stirs up emotion, but I think these conversations are important. And labels attempt to simplify the complex, because it’s easier for us to consider a person by their label rather than the complicated amalgam of race and culture and language and self-identification that makes a human whole.

I, for instance, am half Asian. Growing up in Hawaii, that literal melting pot, I was largely shielded from labels. But when I moved to The Mainland (what we called the continental US) for college, I became acutely aware of my “otherness”. And the fact that I’m not one identifiable race makes my case even more complicated – I defied labels, and that sometimes made people unsure how to approach me.

And I’m not going into the challenge of being a (half) Asian woman and the cultural baggage that carries, because that’s a whole discussion in itself.

This is all to say that labels attempt to simplify, and while that may be fine for efficiencies’ sake, we cannot, must not, forget the nuances. Indigenous people have suffered horrors that are different from the horrors of Black history in America. Latinx (yes, I know, I’m using a label that I have conflicted feelings about, but, hey, as I said, the uncomfortable compromise of efficiency…) face their unique discrimination, and the growing xenophobia aimed at Asian-Americans is quite frankly frightening (I’m telling you, if I hear “kung-flu” one more time, I may be thrown into an uncharacteristic rage).

And I will leave you with this; my mother is Japanese, and my father was an American mutt – grandparents on one side emigrated from England, and the other side is French and can be traced nearly to the Revolution. I have always danced between those two identities, even as a majority who look at me would label me Asian. Whenever I fill out any government forms I check “other”, because nothing applies to me.

That same Pew Research Center study I referenced above shows that “mixed race” will constitute 4% of the population come 2045.

Maybe I’ll have a label then.

But until then, I suppose the important takeaways are: be aware of what you call people. Those very labels can influence the way you feel about them. Be aware of what people want to be called. Because those labels influence the way they feel about themselves. We are all unified both in the uniqueness of our experiences, and by the similarities in our experiences. The answers aren’t easy. Let’s just keep asking questions, of ourselves, and of each other.

The extraordinary label/title that artist Barry X Ball gave to one of his sculptures

One thought on “Labels

  1. Sarah. All your posts are great but this one has something special. I couldn’t agree more.
    We live in societies (USA, Canada, UK, France,…) who like to put labels on people. I always hated those labels (WASP, FCPSB -> French Canadians Pea soups Bastards,…). I think there is a attempt to get some forms of control behind all this. Fear could also trigger those labelling because we are scared of the unknown. When we reach toward another culture psychological and physical barriers often go down. This fear change to human empowerment and we then become a better person. It is most of the time a win-win.
    We shall also never forget that everyone is a unique and precious cell in the body of humanity.
    p.s.: I was wondering if I was retarded when I read the notice of the artist (Barry X Ball). I had to reread it at least three times to understand it and it wasn’t because of the language. I thought the artist was describing the ceramic plate behind the notice. I thought the ceramic was his Oeuvre d’Art. I shouldn’t write this down but hey, if it may you laugh, it is ok.


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