Friday, January 20, 2017

We Need to Stop Assuming These 3 Things Are Fixed

This was my first week back teaching. It's a week full of syllabi and introductions.  At my institution we have adopted a new policy where rather than call names from a role sheet we hand out index cards and have our new students write the name that appears on the roster along with the name they want to be called and their preferred pronouns.  It's an activity that is designed to allows students to self-identify rather than feel trapped in an identity that they do not relate to or to force them to have to come out in front of a room full of strangers on the a day that is already full of anxiety and stress.  This simple practice got me thinking about labels and how we think about some things as fixed while others are fluid.

In grad school I remember my professor telling me, and my fellow seminar students, that race was not a fixed category; that we could no longer treat it as such in our research.  Meaning that possessing a participant's racial history would  no longer to be viewed as hard research.  Race was a social construct and therefore could not provide us with any real information.  Think about it, what changes once you are aware of someone's racial category?  Do you gain any real knowledge or does your brain just begin to fill in stereotypical information?

Today as a mother, college professor and an ally I realize that very few, if any, labels are set in stone or even clear cut yet we treat them with an undeserved reverence, a pompous ceremony, that they will provide us all the information that we will ever need. 

Socially engineered gender roles like, blue is for boys and pink is for girls are still alive and unwell. If you don't believe me, log into social media and I'm sure you will be greeted with a gender reveal announcement where the colors are still being used to describe a human who we haven't even met yet.  Already a lifetime of expectations is being attributed to this small human that hold no weight. "Oh you're having a girl, she is going to be so sweet and here is a puffy pink dress because she'll love it."  "Congratulations a boy, here's a truck that they will enjoy because of it what is between their legs."  The truth is we don't know what they will like because we haven't met them yet, but assuming we do because of their gender is just as arbitrary as picking a random toy off the shelf at the store and giving it to your friend that is expecting.  There are facts about gender but none of them tell us about what your child will be like or grow up to be.  The facts about gender are harsh and historically embedded in are society.  Things like women making .77 cents to the dollar when compared to their male counterparts or how women possess less than 20% of elective offices but make up over half of the US population.

Isn't that why many labels were introduced in the first place, to develop a hierarchy? If there were two sexes than one could be the superior and the other inferior.  If there were more than one race, rather than just the scientifically proven human race, then a dichotomy could be adopted?
To me race, gender, and sexuality, are fluid.  Labels that do mean something to me are; freedom fighter, social justice leader, ally, feminist, ethnorelative.  These are words that have power, that stand for something, that tell me who you are. It's not the color of your skin or the word associated with how you identify when faced with the limited two choices at a public restroom. 

Man, woman, black, white, gay, straight aren't going to give me information to who will stand up for me if I am attacked, who will vote for equally inclusive laws when they are alone at the polls,who will speak out for me when I am labeled as a terrorist for wearing a BLM shirt.

We fight when people try and change their ascribed label when we should really applaud them for being brave enough for telling us who they are, for trusting that we will not reject or belittle them. 
Don't let labels box someone in, let it give them the words to communicate their story. If someone is nonbinary don't dismiss it because you reject labels but also don't stop listening once they have told you who they are because now that you have their label you somehow, know the rest. 

Labels, if anything, are a start not a conclusion. Identities are layered and complex consisting of polarity and hidden devices often rooted in survival. They are shifting and growing, they cannot be condensed just as they cannot be assumed. Let someone tell you their story without the hindrance of your own perception.