How often have Brazilians heard that they are all lazy, Carnaval-dancing, soccer-playing, Havaianas-wearing beach bums? How many times have French been blamed for Parisians’ arrogance, rudeness and smelliness? How frequently have Americans been accused of being ignorant wannabe world dominators?
Before leaving Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I had never been asked (directly) about my race, my religious affiliation, my political views, my ethnicity or my sexual identity. Am I a liberal or a conservative? Am I interested in men, women or both? Am I black, brown, white, red, yellow or “other”? Am I Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, atheist or “other”? Am I an evolutionist or a creationist? Maybe I am a check mark in a box?
I am a Caucasian, twenty-five years old, baptized, half-Belgian, half-Brazilian female. But I see these details as irrelevant to you, my reader. And I hope that what you will retain from this article goes beyond the fact that I am a young, white, Euro-Latin American woman.
Trying to fit my physical characteristics, ideas, beliefs and values into categories from a drop-down list doesn’t make much sense to me. It might be that where I am from classes are so rigidly established and obvious – you are either a minority, quite rich and white, or a majority, mostly poor and dark skinned – that nobody goes through the trouble of worry about official categories.
By contrast, America’s fluid, heterogeneous, “we can all attain the American dream” society might need more formal, stratified organizing principles. It might also be that Americans are so adamant about their acceptance of diversity, that by “demonstrating it too much” has reinforced the need for categorizations.
And maybe there is nothing wrong with that. After all, aren’t we asked to label ourselves when applying to SIPA?
Labels aren’t inherently bad. They may be a source of comfort and belonging. The words “I am Brazilian” always come to me with a sense of pride.
Labels also help us organize society and simplify overcomplicated aspects of daily life. Our profession is a label. So is our gender, our education level and the hand in which we wear our wedding band.
The problem emerges when labels are used not as adjectives but as the only definition of who we are – even though most of the time we have no choice as to which label is being applied to us!
Combined with a lack of information, labels may lead to unhelpful and misguided stereotypes – inaccurate, simplistic or exaggerated generalizations about a group or individual. They may isolate, creating barriers between people who are otherwise very similar.
Such constructions may come to – consciously or not – influence thoughts and behaviors. And suddenly, without much careful consideration, we feel we know exactly who people are, we can explain their conduct or predict their future actions. We may even come to harbor hostile thoughts towards them!
By labeling groups or individuals we risk closing our minds, fitting people into categories and keeping them there. We may feel comfortable in our ideological cocoons, grabbing onto evidence that supports our view and simply ignoring that which contradicts it.
I have been deemed arrogant for saying I hold political and religious views independent of particular affiliations. As an immigrant, I have been the target of, but not felt personally harmed by labels.
But I know many people who have, and I am positive you do too.
One of our fellow students, Lenny Pridatko, remembers an “overall unpleasant feeling” when he first emigrated from the former Soviet Union, in 1991. “Go back where you came from” is a phrase he heard repeatedly throughout his first few years in the U.S.
Lenny did not “return to where he came from”. Instead, he remained in Brooklyn and worked quickly to lose his once strong Russian accent.
I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that I have been guilty of labeling and stereotyping myself – even if reluctantly or unconsciously. How about you?
It’s easy to forget that before gender, color, religion, background or preferences we are all individual human beings. Or that maybe, beyond these secondary details, we just want to find common ground and live in a world free of bias.
In the meantime, why don’t we look at the person next to us, and make as much effort as possible to get to know them for who they truly are, instead of seeing them for what they appear to be?
I like to think that at SIPA – a mini international hub – most of us will not allow generalizations to replace thought and experience. We will prevent ourselves from only hanging out with those who share our label(s) and avoiding those who don’t.
We will take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity, and instead of hiding in our comfort zones, we will seek to learn from people of all colors, backgrounds, preferences, dress codes, races and religions. I am sure we will surprise ourselves. Is everybody with me?
This article was written for and published by Communique, on October 12th, 2010.