The first time my husband and I went grocery shopping together, over 20 years ago now, it looked like the scene from the movie Green Card. Andie MacDowell was putting in fresh veggies and granola on one side of the cart, while Gerard Depardieu added sides of beef and lard on his side. Over time my husband has stopped going shopping with me, not because of conflicting food choices, but mostly because I am a label reader, which can turn a quick errand into an hour-long expedition. I relish the concepts of foods on a well-written label, and I welcome heartily the new labeling regulations, allowing me to know everything about a product before I make a commitment to purchasing it.
But when it comes to people, a label can never do justice to revealing what’s inside.
My husband, who’s Brazilian (and now a U.S. Citizen) says “white” is the most appropriate when filling out forms that require it, since “Hispanic” doesn’t apply to Brazil. Yet when our child enrolls in school, he’s considered Hispanic by the public school system.
A colleague, who is Hindu, also has trouble with the current system. “When I have to categorize myself I will usually fill out the other bubble. As a South Asian American I am not categorized in the Asian/Pacific Islander category, and have been told that I am in fact a sub category of the Caucasian category. Considering myself as a person of color I do not feel comfortable categorizing myself as Caucasian, which is what most white Americans categorize themselves as. So although India is in the Asian sub continent, and Indians are listed in a subcategory (Caucasoid) of Caucasian, neither of those categories defines me, resulting in my selection of other.”
Lately I’ve felt most accurately labeled as a “peachy United Statian,” peach being the color crayon that most looked like my skin color in elementary school and United Statian as opposed to “American.” If you’ve ever traveled throughout the Americas, everyone from Canada to Argentina is American. I am from the United States.
But really, that last statement is an attempt to self-identify as something other than “white,” when I don’t want to. I’m white. If I’m Jewish you might not like me, so I’ll just be white. The truth of the matter is that it makes me nervous to forgo my privilege of having a label that doesn’t really tell you anything about me.
Which is exactly why I know I need to do it. I look forward to the day when we have a new paradigm that moves beyond labels and distinctions to a more equitable and empathetic way of relating to one another, but we’re not there yet. In the meantime, my search for a label is an acknowledgment of the disparity in the current system of labels and an opportunity to explore who I am so that I can contribute to the dialogue on race and culture from a point of agency. Knowing and loving me for who I am is the best platform from which to reach out and embrace others.