When I was young, I had a labelmaker. I thought it was cool to make labels to stick on things. I made labels for my drawers for socks, pants, shirts and winter clothes. I put labels on my stuff so people would know who owned it.
This is not because I was organized or tidy in any way, but because I just liked using the labelmaker. It was a new toy to play with for a while. After a short time it became less fun (and I ran out of label rolls), so I put it away, never to be seen again. And, of course, when my mom came into my room and saw all the labels, I was instructed to take the labels off so they did not ruin the furniture.
It’s interesting how we label things, how we like to categorize and organize in order to define our lives. I am currently reading Becoming an Anti-Racist Church, by Joseph Barndt (Fortress Press). In it, he describes how racism began as an attempt to categorize people—especially people of color—for the purpose of maintaining and perpetuating control by the white European culture and people.
The idea of race was invented by sixteenth-century Europeans, imported by seventeenth-century American colonialists, constitutionalized by eighteenth-century American forefathers, and perpetuated throughout the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries as a tool to measure human worth and distribute power and priviledge.”1
Europeans put labels on things so everyone would know “who owns it.” It was their understanding that they had the “Divine right” to own everything and everyone, so they set up a system that could be used to subjugate the world for the sake of their own power and control: racial classifications.
We are inheritors of this process of label-making. Every government survey or census I’ve ever taken requires us to choose a racial designation. In some cases it is “optional,” but we live in a culture that insists on labels for race. It’s just part of who we are. But does it need to be?
What if we lived in a world where we could look at another human and not see a label attached to them? What if we could walk into school, work, church or store and not see the other person as a threat—either to your safety or your privilege?
The unfortunate fact in America is that we—collective “we”, not individual “we”—all have labels on us. If someone is a person of color, then society places the label of “less” upon them in either subtle (sideways looks or “conditional” opportunity) or overt (racial insults or deportation) ways. If someone is white, there is also labeling—the label of privileged opportunity, the label of being “in”, or the label of unearned power.
Please note at this point that I am white. I do not presume to speak for people of color, I am as an infant who is just learning to speak. But to not speak is to silently assent to what is already spoken. So in my infantile voice, I will say that this label-making needs to go away, not only from individual minds and hearts, but from the systems and institutions that perpetuate them.
Our individual work needs to be on changing our own attitudes and prejudices, but more importantly, it needs to focus on joining with other voices—especially those with labels different than our own—to point out where our culture has embedded racism, classism, sexism, etc. and to bring forward ways to change these laws and “hidden rules” so the label-making can stop.
Once I put away my labelmaker, I never found it again. I never needed it, because I grew up and knew what and where things were. I am starting to grow up in my understanding of what it means to be human, as well. I have a long way to go, and I hope to be engaged by other humans who can help me with that process.
1 “Becoming an Anti-Racist Church”, 2011, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN, p.90.
labelmaker image from: http://historysdumpster.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-dymo-label-maker.html