Saturday, October 18, 2014

Labels and Identity

Raven-Simone said in a recent interview with Oprah that she was tired of labels and didn’t want to be called gay or African-American, but simply American because it’s all encompassing. She also added she didn’t know where in Africa her ancestors originated from, but knew her roots were in Louisiana. Oprah’s prediction that her comments were going to create a storm on social media came true shortly after the interview aired. People were up in arms over Raven’s interview with most feeling she was disassociating herself from African-Americans.

While I understand her reason for not wanting to be tagged with labels because they are reductive, I also understand the public backlash against her comment. As much as labels can be constrictive, they can also serve to highlight or identify a marginalized people. Usually, these people have been pushed to the periphery of society or have had their rights trampled on, so for them a label is their way of saying: “We exist, we are here, and you’re going to hear us out.”

For instance, the suffragettes of late 19th century Britain advocated for women’s right to vote. Feminists seek to highlight and end gender bias against women since they have long been denied parity with men on social, economic and political affairs, even though they constitute half the world’s population; while gay advocacy groups exist to fight homophobia, educate the public and emphasize the problems gay people encounter.

The term African-American was chosen by Black Americans as a way of identifying and connecting with their origins and ancestors, who were violently robbed of their identity when they were slapped with the religion, language and names of slave masters. Black Americans may have also chosen the label, in lieu of ‘American’, to shed light on the racial inequality that has plagued them as a people from the days of slavery through the Jim Crow era down to present day America.
Labels: They make for easy identification, but can be constrictive.
Photo: Buzzfeed
Some individuals may argue that differentiation and labels only exacerbate the problem of discrimination, but does sticking one’s head in the sand and pretending that the problem doesn’t exist make it go away? People normally won’t slap labels on themselves; external forces make them do so and sometimes the epithet is given to them by the oppressor. 

Therefore, if one wishes a label away, then more should be done to eradicate the source for the labeling. Case in point: Feminism will cease to exist once gender parity is achieved; gay rights will no longer be an issue the moment discrimination against the group ends, and perhaps African-Americans will call themselves Americans the day racism against them disappears or fades away.

Although labels have their advantages, they also have their disadvantages in that they diminish a group and force people to conform to certain social or cultural norms. 

I have been told by my Nigerian and non-Nigerian friends, much to my chagrin, that I don’t act Nigerian. Although they mean no harm, I find it rather annoying. What does it even mean to act Nigerian? Does it include knowing all of Fela’s songs or scamming people via the internet? Is there a scientific formula to being Nigerian? 

While I grapple with the Nigerian question, I've also had to deal with accusations of harboring opinions that aren't African. That’s right, as an African I’m expected to possess certain thought patterns and interpret life like every African. Isn’t it hypocritical that the same people who complain about stereotyping turn on you the moment you commit a ‘thought-crime’, by not conforming to their ideas of what they consider African?

Many Africans believe a woman should know how to cook because it’s her traditional responsibility in the home. Personally, I don’t believe it’s a woman’s duty to cook for the household. However, if she’s a better cook than her husband or returns home from work before him, then by all means let her do the cooking; otherwise, the husband should do it. Having a vagina doesn’t mean one should do the cooking neither does it confer one with any cooking prowess. Besides, not all women can cook or enjoy the process – I for one am no cordon bleu chef, I hate cooking and only do so because I have to live. So do my views make me un-African or less of a woman? 

Catholic doctrine teaches that couples shouldn’t use artificial birth control methods. It also preaches that divorced couples who remarry cannot partake in Holy Communion and women cannot be ordained priests. However, in reality, there are several Catholic couples who use artificial birth control, of which the Church is aware since family size has drastically reduced, and staunchly identify with the Catholic Church. 

Also, there are Catholics who believe remarried couples should receive Holy Communion and that women should preside over Mass as priests. Should such people be excommunicated for not toeing the party line? Should they be branded non-Catholics for having differing views from those espoused by the Church?

It’s true that we are products of our environment, but that doesn’t mean we all assimilate information and experience life the same way. With the advent of the internet and cable TV, the nature of our immediate environment has been altered and expanded thereby making opinions more diverse and less parochial. Therefore, people shouldn’t expect individuals to fit the perfect mold of whatever label they have ascribed to them.

For what it’s worth, life would be much easier and better if we recognized one another as human beings without any embellishments. But since it’s impossible to do so, feel free to label; however, be prepared to be terribly disappointed.