Life in a Box: A Reflection on Living in a Labeled Society

by Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso

What are you? Who are you? If you had to describe who you are as a person, what would that sound like? As human beings, we have a strange tendency to need to classify things and while this can boost our understanding of the world around us, it can also box us in. We live in a society where our first instinct is to form our image of others based on superficial factors like gender, race,religion,sexual orientation,political values, or even the color of our hair but today let’s take a moment to reconsider that. Today, we’re going to look at how labeling the world around us can limit our ability to connect to it.

Stereotyping can be a difficult subject to broach with people in our modern society. As people, we are constantly bombarded with the oxymoron of standing out by fitting in via media influences but inwardly always crying out to be seen as who we are without knowing how to achieve that. The pull of wanting to be special but also wanting to be accepted without judgment is a confusing battle that we all fight on a daily basis. Countless groups and causes are built around ending prejudice but in order to end a prejudice you must identify a group. Once you identify that group, people will naturally begin to associate things to that group and over time those traits lump into what our society recognizes as a stereotype.

Stereotyping is nothing more than a collective of “common” behaviors tied to a certain label so at its core it’s actually somewhat benign. It helps the human mind identify things that fit into a category and understand part of the world around us. So when does a stereotype become a pitfall?  The actual act of a stereotype being created isn’t at all unnatural or bad but what sours it is when human nature comes into play.  Stereotypes become weapons when we as human beings misuse them or take them out of context. The act of observing that people of a certain color,gender, or faction have some common threading behavior isn’t wrong. A group having a common interest is also in fact not wrong. Automatically applying that trait to every person who seems to fit that group is when it becomes wrong.

For example, if I observe multiple blonde women not breaking the bank in intelligence, it is logical to check that as a possible common trait I might find in the wild. At it’s core this won’t be wrong or offensive. However, if I automatically assume every blonde woman I meet is an idiot without getting to know them as a person, that is very wrong. I’ve applied a stereotype as a universal truth at that point. As another example, let’s say I observe that many of the janitors where I work are of a non-white persuasion and decide to check off this job field as a commonly held one for that grouping. That’s actually not offensive or wrong. If I begin to apply that all non-whites in my building don’t deserve to be earning as much as me because they should all be janitors, this is wrong. I am again turning a stereotype into a universal truth.

The danger in stereotypes isn’t that they’re being created or even that they’re being practiced at times by people in those groups. It’s that we often take stereotypes and bump them up from common observations to truths that we start automatically applying like scented stickers on a  nineties era school notebook. Stereotyping is a common human behavior but the difference in them being benign or dangerous is the very thin line of how seriously we take them .

I think one of the hardest things for people to understand about prejudice is that it exists naturally in every person. You may think you’re better than another person, but deep down and through the sheer virtue of human nature, we are all a little bit sexist,racist, and fearful of things that are new and different. It’s part of being a human. We question and judge things all the time and it is completely normal. We seek to understand our world by classifying parts of it and breaking it down into basic concepts. This is also completely normal. Part of the problems when we talk about things like prejudice or stereotyping is that everyone is afraid to admit that human beings are naturally kind of awful. We want to be able to look down on someone else and call them out for being prejudice without having to look at ourselves,but at the end of the day, human beings are constant works in progress. No one is perfect.

The fact of the matter is that prejudice will be there like the air you breathe, no matter how much you want to ignore it. The idea that there are hate-free people in the world is a bit of a pipe dream. But don’t get discouraged. Just because stereotypes and human behaviors exist, doesn’t mean you have to actually subscribe to them. You will feel an urge to slap a trait on someone based on how they look,talk,or choose to live but it doesn’t mean you have to honor that urge. Acknowledge it and then move on to discovering the person for who they are. The more we can adopt the mindset that no person is defined by an arbitrary trait, the more we can get to know each other as the people we are and not the people the world thinks we are.

Labels can be great. They let us know a jar is filled with olives and not grapes and help us figure out which tan folder has our taxes from four years ago. Labels can teach us and help explain things to us. Labels can even save our lives by stopping us from opening things we shouldn’t  or letting us know that overpriced shirt we thought we needed is dry clean only. But labels can also limit us when they are incorrectly applied or misinterpreted. This is especially true when we take the step of putting labels on people.

Like stereotyping, slapping labels on people is a necessary evil sometimes. We slap labels of job titles on so we know how much should be in a paycheck and what a person is liable for at a workplace. We slap labels on what gender we are so we can get the appropriate medical treatments,clothing, and bathroom assignments. We even slap labels on our pets so we’re not classifying cats as just being really angry small dogs. The human mind runs on labels so in a sense we need to behave this way to function.

So is it wrong to label people? At it’s most basic level, the answer is no. To some degree applying simple labels,even ones you might think are offensive, is not at all malicious in practice. Like all the other things we’re labeling,it helps us navigate and interpret. Think about something like dating. If we didn’t classify sexual orientation finding a mate would be a really messy process rife with misunderstandings and mishaps. The same thing applies with things like gender. If we didn’t label ourselves as a particular gender it would make many things like buying clothes,getting treated for a medical condition, or even working out how to accommodate going to the bathroom in a public place just awful.

The fact of the matter is that as a society we are constantly pulling on the two ends of the argument regarding personal labels without seeing what’s written on the ground underneath our feet. Labels can’t be eliminated. It’s not a matter of removing labels or even needing them, but rather an issue with how we handle them as people. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging a label of a person’s race,gender,sexual orientation, or even their religion. At its heart there’s nothing offensive about that. What’s offensive is when we either see just the label or misinterpret it.

As an example, let’s talk about female drivers. What do you think about women who drive? The answer is that you can assume nothing about driving based on a person’s gender. A gender label has no impact on anything and that includes driving,intelligence,or any behaviors. The label of  “woman” only tells you that the person is biologically female. If you went from female and driving to bad driver,you’re making an assumption based on a label and reading beyond it into what is quite possibly not true.

Labels aren’t bad and we need them to a certain degree. Don’t be afraid of them. Don’t try to shed them. Don’t try to make them friendlier. Just stop taking them as anything more than what they actually mean. If you start at a basic fact like a person’s gender,skin color, or anything else and develop a full biography from it before you even get to know the person then you’re doing it wrong. Labels mean what they mean and nothing beyond that. It’s important to remember that human beings are a sum of traits so we need to look past the labels and seek the person underneath. Labels can help us have a barebones idea of people but they shouldn’t define them or stop us from getting to know each other.

There’s a song by the band Depeche Mode that’s titled “People are People” and it’s a song that literally any person in the world can benefit from hearing. It touches on a very pure and simple debate. Why do people hate people? Hatred as a concept is of course not cut and dry in the least, but if you really think about it, prejudice as a concept has a very clear root and that is differentiation. When we start finding all the reasons another person is different from us, we translate it as a negative before we appreciate it as a positive while simultaneously losing sight of what ties us together as human beings. This process can take any amount of time from seconds to years but it’s the exact reason prejudice and stereotyping have been able to flourish like black mold in our society.

When it comes to people being different, it can be scary and human beings have a natural tendency to run before walking in situations like that. Now you might think there’s some awesome meaning of life level thing connecting us all in the circle of life, but that’s also not it. All you have to do to appreciate the people around you more is grasp that no matter what person you run into anywhere in the world you have one thing in common with them. No matter what color,gender,political party,or sexual orientation they are, they’re a human being and so are you. We’re all human beings. No amount of differences will ever change that and no amount of differences can lower the value of the human life going on around you.

Aside from the fact that everyone being who they are is enough and awesome,try appreciating that at their very core, the people you meet are human beings just like you are. All human beings have emotions,thoughts,opinions,dreams, and life experiences just like you. Maybe they see the world from another geographic location,travel in a body that looks different, or are just walking on a path you’ve never walked before but at the end of the day you can learn to embrace the differences using the founding fact that you’re both human beings trying to live life. Don’t judge a book by its cover or the contents of a gift by the box it comes in, because when we go into an interaction “knowing” we can’t truly benefit from discovering it for what it is.

Conclusion

Dealing with people can be complicated and getting to know them can be scary, but breaking down the walls that labels and stereotypes build between us and society can be the first step to true communication. Life shouldn’t be about being better or even different but rather about appreciating people as people and not superficial traits. So make an effort to be the person that embraces differences and sees labels for what they are. Under every label is a person and within every person is far more than you can extract from a preconception.


Thanks for reading this issue of Thoughts of an Aspie!

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