I am an overweight, American, cisgender, straight, mid-30s, black/white female, who is spiritual but not religious, and tends to vote for Democrats. LABELS GALORE.
Now, with all of those labels, what did you actually learn about me? Go ahead, think about it. I’ll give you some time.
On a superficial level, do you know what I look like? My hair? Bone structure?
On a deeper level, what do you know about me? You might say I’m lazy, since I’m overweight. My nationality may lead you to think that I’m arrogant and narrow-minded given how Americans behave when they travel to foreign countries and what our government does with its power. My sexual orientation and gender might make you think that I’m homophobic or not understanding of others who differ from me. You might think I’m a lazy Millennial with an entitlement complex. You may think I’m hedonistic and without a moral compass since I actively proclaim my lack of religion. Maybe the fact that I’ve never voted for a Republican makes you think I’m a socialist.
Those are all things I’ve heard based on those particular labels. But they don’t even come close to telling my whole story.
Make a list of your own that matches mine. Try to picture yourself based just on those labels and come up with the things someone might say about you. How accurate it is? Probably not very.
Labels are quick and convenient. To some degree they’re necessary, but not to the degree that we’ve employed them. Each one of the labels I used to describe myself contain a range of values. By the labels I used above, it’s hard to tell where on the range I fall. Even qualifying them doesn’t really provide that much more detail because it either doesn’t get to the WHY/WHAT/HOW or it’s a big cup of “so what?”
Yes, I’m overweight, but why? Why Democrat instead of Republican – what factors did I use to make my choice? Why am I not religious? What does “spiritual” mean to me? What does being American mean to me? Do I see how we look to the rest of the world?
My race/gender/sexual orientation fall into the land of “So what?” Yes, I’m female both gender and biologically. Being female doesn’t tell you anything about what I’m capable or not capable of. Neither does my race. That’s not to say that those things haven’t had an impact on my life – but to the extent they have, it’s because others have made them an issue. Not me.
But that’s the real crux of the situation, isn’t it? It’s not how we label ourselves that matters – since we think we know who we are defined in those labels (though I don’t think we always do – some of us are as lazy about ourselves as we are about others). It’s how we labels others that matter – and the real problem is that we even think of someone as an “other.”
We label at the most minute points, rather than the highest point. We focus on the labels that separate us rather than those that unite us. If we focused more on human, instead of black, white, Asian, English, Indian, male, female, straight, gay, whatever, we might be more inclined to take actions that benefit all humans, since we fall under that label too. It’s much easier to sit back and do nothing, or worse, take actions that are harmful to others, when they don’t sit in the same label box as us.
The other error in that thinking is believing that something bad needs to happen to anyone. Despite what many people say, there is enough to go around. There’s enough money. There’s enough power. There’s enough.
Once we can stop thinking of life as a zero sum game and start recognizing the abundance that exists around us, we may be able to start thinking just in the label “human.”