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The Trouble with Labels

Have you ever had a hard time explaining yourself to other people? How about when the options you have to describe yourself become limited? Any job application or survey which asks your race or gender becomes quickly confusing when you do not see your identity listed. Try telling someone your political party or religious affiliation without having stereotypes applied to your world view that may be complicated by your own personal experience. False choices and the effects of labels have invaded our everyday conversations and interactions in ways which many people are unaware.

White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; these are the five race categories required on the US census according to the website. Of course, there are options for choosing more than one of these, but with diverse ethnicities within these five categories, how do those who are proud of their country of origin answer? There is no category under “white” for Italian, Irish, Jewish, or German. If Asian, a continent, is on there, why is European or South American not?

Likewise, having a gendered dichotomy is equally as frustrating. There is always male or female, but these faceless survey entities do not clarify whether they are talking about biological sex or gender identity. What about intersex individuals who have tissue from both sex organs? What box are they to check? The stigma from admitting to being intersex or transgender on a job application would more than likely cost you any reasonable chance of being hired anyway.

The media adores putting people in boxes, and the fewer categories you have, the less number of boxes need to exist. Our nationally televised presidential debates feature Republicans and Democrats. Having one for each of the other parties, Libertarian, Green, Constitutional, Socialist, etc. would be too time consuming. God forbid the American electorate be exposed to all options. Thus, the more popular candidates from smaller political camps must be attached to the two bigger ones so that libertarians become GOP candidates and socialists gravitate to the Democrats.

Likewise, religious affiliation seems to be limited to Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, none, or “other”. When you tell someone you are a Christian, you must now answer for every radical act a “Christian” group has ever committed. The same obviously goes for Muslims as well, especially in this post-9/11 world we live in. These blanket questions ignore the various denominations within religious groups, and especially the fact that each individual religious institution, church, mosque, etc. can have their own specific beliefs.

I have been in several classes which were supposed to celebrate our vast diversity, only to find out just how offensive others can be when they assume that the rest of their classmates share the same world view as they have. I have had art and literature professors mock Christianity because they assume that young, educated, college students who happen to enjoy the fine arts are predominantly atheists. I have had social science classmates mock conservatives whenever Karl Marx enters into a conversation because the two philosophies are diametrically opposed, and college students are supposed to be liberals. Unfortunately, not all of us are, and not all of us should be slapped with a ridiculous label simply for having an opinion about something.

I, for one, am tired of being put into a neatly labeled box, and I am making a vow to try and not do the same with others. It is always so easy to look at one aspect of another human being or even a group, and label them as a collective. However, do we not become irritated when it happens to us? Why do we let it stand without correction? More importantly, how can any of us expect to be taken seriously as individuals, when we cannot truly appreciate the rich diversity of people and opinions which surround us? Not everyone believes everything that I do, but that does not mean that I should ignore all of the things we have in common just to spite someone for our differences. It is an epidemic of epic proportions in our society, and the prescription is to put aside petty diversions and take the time to get to know one another on a personal level. Join me in throwing off labels of gender, race, and religion, and appreciate each other for who we really are; not our conveniently misused labels. To use one of the most overused quotes in all of film, “we’re not so different, you and I.”

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