Identity and Our Pursuit for Unity

For many in the journey of self-discovery, the thought of being labeled is a major step backwards in our efforts. In the pursuit of our personal identity, some of us encounter labels like chain-linked fences, obstructing us from fully being our true selves in a world that seems to figuratively hand out “Hello I Am (fill in the blank)” stickers in which sociological labels are to follow. 

As a third culture kid, I know this reality all too well.

Moving from place to place and visiting where I am expected to fully without reservation call “home”, I have been plastered with stories whose roles I am seamlessly presumed to play because

“Oh my God, Mary, you’re black!”

“You’re a Calabar girl. Of course, you’re marrying a Calabar man.” 

“Wait, you’re Canadian? ‘Aboot’ lol.” 

“You need to be with a strong black man. Unless you’re into white…” 

 “Hey, Americana!” 

As you can guess, the commentary continues, 99.9% of the time without my invitation. And as long as I have breath, it inevitably continues. But little do the commentators know that their vocalized opinions are like microscopes that zoom in on just a fragment of who I am. Little do they know that the limited knowledge of my racial identities and heritages or complete neglect of pieces of myself that I have shared with them have, at one point or another, driven me to grow bitter to my Nigerian, Canadian, American, and black identities.

I wanted nothing to do with them. I wanted nothing to do with labels altogether. I was tired of the assumptions tied to so many of them. 

This morning, I witnessed Raven-Symone say, “I’m tired of being labeled” on the “Oprah: Where Are They Now” series. Her assertion came after Oprah asked Raven whether or not there was a word or a language that helped her navigate through being attracted to both men and women. Oprah assumed that word would be “gay”. Raven responded that she is a “human who loves humans.” Now, while I have never seriously wrestled with my sexuality, I’ve identified with being fed up with labels.

After she mentions being tired of being labeled, she follows shortly after with, “I’m an American. I’m not an African American.” Just like her, I have had issues calling myself “African-American” given that I am technically an African-Canadian yet I have spent most of my life in America. I really didn’t like either of these labels because, when in use, they exclude a part of who I am. But with the little growing and maturing that I have experienced within the past year, I’m more at ease when these or any of the previously mentioned qualifiers are used to describe me. The truth is I am all of those things. However, I decided that it is no longer my responsibility to make sure I am addressed or known as all of those things.

In Raven’s case, she chose to do away with the “African-American” label altogether since she doesn’t know her African roots. However, she calls herself an “American”…which is also a label. Many would consider this justified. Others would disagree. Personally, I found the fact that she did not claim to be “black” the most striking, especially since I grew up being such a huge fan of her partially because she was one of the few black girls I would see on TV and think, “Look, she’s black like me!” Then again, just because she did not mention it doesn’t necessarily mean she does not see herself as black. But regardless of our views on this matter, her statement about being “American” but not “African-American” juxtaposed ironically with her disdain for labels brings up a very important point.

Labeling is an inevitable part of the human experience. By denying this, we deceive ourselves. 

Labels are not in and of themselves bad things as long as they’re not derogatory or used undermine ourselves. With labels, many of us have had a better sense of self, better sense of our faith, and so forth. These are good things and we are free to label our own selves however we please.

***

As I continued to listen to listen to Raven speak, I heard her mention, “I’m American. And that’s a colorless person.” I was quickly reminded of the “colorblindness” view, one that I actually held on to for years until thisthisthisthisthis and a myriad of other experiences forced me to look at reality in the mirror.

I am different from you in some capacity. And that’s completely okay.

My race and cultural identities do not inhibit me from interacting and embracing those who a different from me. It is possible for unity to thrive in diversity. However, there are people who have treated me and others who look like me negatively because of our differences instead of celebrating them. Obviously, this isn’t a good thing. But when these issues of discrimination rear their ugly heads against the marginalized, we can make one of two choices:

Demonize the existence of race and other similar labels. Or demonize the wrongful use of them. 

The former says, for example, I don’t see a black man. I simply see a man or, better yet, a human. His race does not matter to me and is irrelevant and the sooner we get over race, the better. But yes, he was wrongly accused of a crime.

The latter says, I see a black man. There’s nothing wrong with calling him a black man. But he should not be accused of this crime because of the color of his skin. Also, his humanity is not separate from his blackness or his manhood. 

The former says race and labels are rigid and restrictive and need to be thrown out. They are damaging to us and restrict our progress. 

The latter says people can have rigid or restrictive perceptions of others (aka stereotypes). It’s good for us to actively reevaluate the assumptions we have surrounding the labels that exist.

The former puts the responsibility on qualifiers. The latter puts the responsibility on us.

The former is easy. The latter is challenging. 

Which decision will you make? And how will it move us forward?

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