Monday, October 6, 2014

Labels and Identities

Willie Cole, 1993, How Do You Spell America?
San Antonio Museum of Art
I assume that if the Huffington Post writes about it and all the other outlets like E! Online, Time and MTV follow suit AND it makes its way to social media, then it must be the news of the day, week, moment.  The thing that generates comments on top of comments, and individual interpretation extremes.  Today that thing was a clip from OWN's Where Are They Now? featuring Raven SymonĂ©.  Darling from my childhood, from The Cosby Show to Hanging With Mr. Cooper to That's So Raven.  
On her coming out and relationships, Raven said she knew of her sexual identity by the age twelve and that she didn't then and doesn't now need a categorizing statement for it.  It is what it is.  She doesn't want to be labeled as gay, just a "human being who loves other human beings."  The spark though, was when she said that she rejects all labels, that she is American, not African-American.  Oooh.  Oprah let that be known too, giving room for Raven to clarify or retract because a statement like that would set Twitter on fire (if that's the worst that could happen...)

In a way I understand what she means.  African-American is a politically correct term, trying to encompass all people of African-descent in the United States, specifically those whose ancestry goes back to slavery.  Beyond that, many do not know about this descent from Africa.  Where in Africa?  Which geographical area, which country, which ethnic group?  That's where I think "Black" fits best for people of (long ago) African-Descent in the United States.  If your connection to Africa is an unknown blur, if you have brown skin (that's not Hispanic brown or South Asian brown), if you would have been called "colored" or "Negro" in the United States...then "Black" is supposed to describe you.

 She said "I don't label myself"  but then she labels herself as "American."  Labels are descriptors.  Their intent is to tell us more about a person, a place, a product.  American can tell us about a person's upbringing or values, nationality, their kind of culture.  African-American or Black tells us about how a person might look, how they might behave (race, as a sub-culture, shapes your life experiences.  Which is not to say that everyone who is of a certain race is the same or cookie-cutter predictable).  
 Raven saying that she is not African-American seems to forget that people are not colorless or colorblind.  And people should not be.  See people's color, as it is a feature easily observed.  Recognize it, respect it, don't discriminate against someone because of it.  But then, as a label, maybe she feels it narrows who she is as a person.  Sometimes labels can seem restrictive.  You are such-and-such, fit in the box that has been assigned for such-and-such.  You cannot be anything other than such-and-such for I will only see you as such-and-such and nothing else.  Maybe it's because some of those labels-- gay, woman-- can attract an ugly kind of attention, the kind that highlights negativity and overshadows the value of the people to which they have been attached.  

Thinking that I understand a little where she's coming from, I'd still say that it's impossible to completely reject labels.  Who are you in relationship to someone else? Sister, daughter, girlfriend, mentor.  Who are you outwardly? Who are you internally?  Labels are important.  They're necessary and they're not ever going away.  Despite what she says people will still view her as African-American or gay or what have you. But then despite what anyone else says, how Raven views herself and carries herself is more important than the opinions of others.  It is her life to live and enjoy.

And done. My two cents.

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