I've come to be quite a master of labels. Truly a connoisseur. Prada, Armani, Chanel, YSL -- I love them all. Clean and new, tailored and pressed, the labels that line my closet each have a story and represent my personal style. But there are other labels we use in our culture, that you can't take off at the end of the night. The ones that can't be washed with a little detergent, but can color throughout the course of a lifetime. And it's these labels that have caught my attention recently: gay, straight, black, white, male, female, poor, rich, fat, skinny ... the list goes on.
I see these labels as having little value, and yet they are used, traded and bought into faster than next season's collections at New York Fashion Week. America prides itself on being a melting pot of cultures, beliefs and histories. But, when given the chance to separate out all the ingredients, people often do. I'm an advocate for feeling proud to be who you are, but trying to fit someone else in a box leads to intolerance.
I read an article in a psychology journal that explained this a bit. It seems we build up our prejudices for several reasons, one being for our own self esteem. Defining people as "us" or "them" according to whatever criteria we're talking about makes us a part of something we like, and different from what we don't. Scientifically it's called "social identity theory," but in life it's an old concept and something we teach our children not to do: Do not put others down to make you feel bigger or better.
I recognize there is a part of us, biologically, that notices our differences. She wears glasses. He has long hair. But we are also evolved enough to decide to make these labels important or pay no heed to them. There is a global conversation we're all a part of with every single sentence we utter. You may think no one's listening, or your one Tweet into a feed of thousands doesn't matter. But it does.
Each time we box someone else in, decide what or who they are, we assume the right to determine what is theirs: Their own true identity. Isn't it up to them to choose what they like and don't; who they really are and what they are a part of? Taking away the freedom of that discovery is a tragedy that effects the label-er and label-ee. One that leads to self-denial and more prejudices.
Even I get lumped into the name game. It seems that in every interview, people ask me if I'm gay. They don't ask me about how much I love my wife ('cause she's amazing). And they don't want to know about the charitable causes I'm committed to. Twitter is all abuzz speculating about my sex life. And I must say, I'm flattered. If you're talking about what I am doing in the bedroom, than at least you're interested. But if I was gay, then I would just be gay. Instead, I'm a man who cares about fashion and décor, has a thick southern accent, enjoys raising his kids, and loves being married to his soul mate, Julie. Doesn't it seem a little silly that it's more important what I do under the sheets than the legacy I am trying to leave behind for my children?
I'm not saying we should give up labels, but find more important ones to care about. How about "humanitarian" or "leader"? And I am a big fan of "healer," "genius" or "philanthropist." We should be a culture obsessed with talking about people's character over their personal lives. Could you imagine the tabloids printing feverishly to expose great parenting and community involvement? Envision the world we could create if our values and labels were based on fortitude, kindness and love.
When you think about it, does it really matter to you whom he is having sex with? Or whom she prays to? Or which race that family is a part of? Nothing's so cut and dry these days. My granddaughter has a white father and a black mother. She is the apple of my eye and will be raised knowing we are proud of both of her families and their very different histories. The only label that fits her is: "amazing."