Why Racial Labels Don’t Matter, But Do

Recently I had a debate with a friend of mine over a video by Big Think interviewing Neil deGrasse Tyson on the subject of atheism. As a contentious topic, I usually limit such conversations to close friends and open-minded family, away from alcohol and in small groups of very few. I treat the subject of religion with the same care as politics, The Walking Dead, and other touchy issues, but our debate wasn’t about religion at all. We disagreed over Neil deGrasse Tyson, the reigning cultural king of science nerds, rejecting the classification of being atheist. She and I had fundamentally different views on the utility of labels in society.

“The only ‘-ist’ I am is a scientist. I don’t associate with movements… I think for myself. The moment someone attaches you to a philosophy or a movement, then they assign all the baggage and all the rest of the philosophy that goes with it, to you… I’d rather we explore each other’s ideas in real time, rather than assign a label to it.”

On one hand, humans naturally categorize. Our brains catalogue information and make associations, and grouping and stereotypes are largely how we make regular decisions in a social world – and rightfully so. Since categorizing is necessary in navigating a complex world, my friend argued the more worthwhile pursuit is creating better defined categories. If categories exist and are inescapable, isn’t it more prudent to have conscious acknowledgement of which categories you adhere, and which you don’t? What good is your denial?

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  • Person A: I don’t believe in god.
  • Person B: Oh you’re an atheist!
  • Person A: No, no. I don’t align myself with a group of people who preach against religion and view themselves as part of a group defined by their shared non-belief in god.

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She had a point. Labels are inescapable; yet when it came to the usefulness of labels in society, I realized I had been taught the opposite. Humans categorize, yes. But the more worthwhile pursuit is to discuss specific issues and behaviors that allow us to address core problems and consider precise solutions. The solution is not to make better categories in attempt to oversimplify complex social identities. The downfall of labels, particularly when coupled with beliefs, is they are subject to ambiguity or misrepresentation – think of Occupy Wall Street, or mischaracterizations of feminism. By talking about specific issues first, we better impact problems without these distractions from inaccurate groupings or misleading labels:

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  • Person A: Sure, I consider myself a feminist.
  • Person B: Why do you hate men? Did you hear what Anita Sarkeesian said about Hitman? I can prove she’s lying!
  • Person A: Who said anything about – actually, just never mind.

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Lately I rethink the whole conversation, prompted by an unlikely source. Raven-Symone spoke on Oprah, sharing her views on what language and labels mean to her. I imagine her publicist’s facepalm as Oprah stopped the track, and warned her to leave Los Angeles and run into the woods because Black Twitter was coming with tar and feathers. Raven-Symone, famous from the most recognizable Black family on TV, looked at Oprah Winfrey and said she’s not Black, nor is she gay. She is no label at all. “I’m am an American. Not an African-American.”

One person pictured is Black, the other is a colorless, odorless gas, like Nitrogen.

Applying my logic of labels towards race, my disappointment in Raven-Symone was quickly interrupted by fear – were my views aligned with Raven-Symone’s? Paranoia crept in as my mind flashed forgotten movie scenes and images of Tori Morrison book covers. Who brainwashed me? It was my guidance counselor’s fault! She tricked me into the White man’s psychology degree! No, this couldn’t be right. I proudly label myself Black and would never think to deny it. Is there a difference between Neil deGrasse Tyson’s assertion about religious beliefs, to which I agreed, and Raven-Symone’s on race and identity?

The differences lay in the space between a label and a community. A label is, at its core, a categorization: a mammal is an animal that drinks water and breathes air. A community, however, is comprised of shared experiences and interests based under those labels. When Neil deGrasse Tyson resisted labeling himself atheist, his resistance derived from what he was describing as a movement or community – one whose perceived movement he openly rejects. Raven-Symone did the same, but to a deeper consequence that stings of betrayal and shame. By rejecting the label of being Black, she effectively denies the shared experience of those identified by that label, and the interests of the community it represents. Even worse, she’s implicitly denying that the historical sacrifices made in its name were made for her.

I don’t live here, just passing through.

Race is a social construct. Humankind made it up. But it is, and that fact matters. There’s a theory in Sociology called the Thomas theorem that says when something is believed to be true, it becomes true in its consequences. So long as identifiable groups – whether ethnic, sexual orientation, religious, or otherwise – have significant and uniquely shared interests and experiences, there will be labels that people choose to embrace or reject based on their consequences and associations; and with visible criteria such as race, you will face them whether you like it or not.

Reading Raven-Symone’s statements and assuming best intentions, we might understand her desire for a more unified society unbound by artificial categories. Many of us relate to being exhausted by defending the labels used to represent our social views, political ideologies, or the people we choose to date. Labels evolve over time, and none of us know how they will look far into the future. But here and now, my community is not synonymous with America. Here and now, I recognize a shared experience with not only a sense of pride, but a sense of responsibility and determination. Today, race matters.

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  • Jordan Calhoun is a writer and pop culture savant in New York City. He holds a B.A. in Sociology and Criminal Justice, B.S. in Psychology with a minor in Japanese, and an M.P.A. in Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy. He might solve a mystery, or rewrite history. Find him on Twitter @jordanmcalhoun

  • Show Comments

  • Capa Pej

    >> “But here and now, my community is not synonymous with America.”

    Really powerful summation right there. Great article– it really cross applies to labels in so many other contexts… it’s easy to fall into the “labels are good” versus “labels are bad” argument, so it’s nice to read a more nuanced view!!! Great work!

  • S Williams

    I’m good at this part… What you really want is an answer to the metaquestion: Is she saying “I’m trying to transcend race because race labels shouldn’t matter” or is it the microagression that she thinks “she’s too good to be black?” There might even be more than two metaquestions, all of which may/may not be equally threatening to “traditional” black people.

    I’m not a mind reader. It’s the wee hours and I didn’t check Wikipedia to see if Raven Simone is biracial or light-skinned black. Personally, as a biracial person, when I was a gifted, nerdy little kid, other black people told me in numerous, painful ways that I wasn’t remotely black, so I eventually said screw it, fine, I’m not. And it’s sometimes painful to this day. So if Raven is anything like me, too “smart”, too light-skinned, too “where do you come from, Ching-Ching bing bong?”, “talks too white” because our speech doesn’t use slang and we articulate, we didn’t grow up in the hood (she obviously didn’t), then black people need to own up to the fact that they took it upon themselves to disown people like us from the culture, and now we’re too bitter to care.

    What do you have to say about that, Mr. Calhoun?

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