I have been thinking a lot about your post on race relations in American today. While I will never know what it is like to be a bi-racial person (unless you count my English and Scottish heritage as such) I do know what it is like to be homosexual and considered part of a minority or marginalized group.
Tiffany, let me tell you a story. A couple of months ago, I went to a conference about working with youth. One of the seminars I attended was on how to share power with youth; it was fantastic. In that seminar we did a exercise on personal power. The exercise was an adaptation of the Pie of Personal Identity. The point of the exercise was to show you how much power in our American society specific individuals and groups have. The pie was divided up into a number of slices, and while I don’t remember how all the pie pieces were labeled, it contained things like: Christian, White Male, Heterosexual, Age 25-45, and Abled Bodied. If the piece of the pie represented you, you colored it in. The total pieces of the pie you colored in represented the amount of social power you have in our culture. The more pieces you colored in, the more power you have.
As a white male, most of my pie pieces were colored in. I love pie, so this made me happy. In fact, I think only two pieces of my pie were left blank: I do not identify as Christian, and I do not identify as heterosexual. Apparently, according to this exercise, only straight bible thumpers have more power in our culture than I do. Pretty good for a poor bloke like me, no?
Now, before I go any further, I would like to say that I think exercises like the one I just mentioned can be very useful. In fact, at the time I did this exercise I found value in the process in that it challenged some of my thinking. However, when I think of my Pie of Personal Identity and relate it to my experiences in the real world, the two just don’t look the same. Reality is, if I base the quantity of pie I should have on what society says, I would never know how much pie I have. And, being that I like pie, I want to know how much is available to me.
To put it another way, I have found that some people are very quick to label me as ‘marginalized’ as a gay man when it suits their argument to do so. Conversely, I have also found that some people are quick to label me as a ‘privileged white male’ when it suits them to do so. I have even had some people question the very existence of a gay sub-culture, thus nullifying ‘gay’ as a label at all. Even more shocking, I recently overhead a heterosexual woman claim she was oppressed because she is Christian. Not sure I understand her point of view, but the point I am trying to make is that this entire ‘power’ thing is confusing, isn’t it?
Labeling games create a paradoxical situation. While I believe it is human nature to want to label and categorize things (you should see how I’ve categorized my music collection, Tiffany) not all things can be labeled. When we attempt to create labels for ourselves we often dehumanize and minimize who and what we truly are. I have never viewed myself as ‘marginalized’ or ‘oppressed’. I have never labeled myself based on some of my attributes such as ‘homosexual’ or ‘white’ or ‘brown haired’. I label myself as Tad. When I wake up in the morning, I don’t pet my gay dog, feed my gay cats and make a gay cup of coffee. I do those things because those are the kinds of things people do; because I am Tad.
I strongly agree that there are ingrained power structures in our society that need to be torn down and rebuilt. But, when we as a culture proudly embrace terms like ‘marginalized communities’, how do those terms work to shape our view of ourselves, especially if we are the ones being categorized as marginalized? How do those labels work to positively change and break down ingrained power structures? If I buy-in to the idea that I am marginalized and oppressed, how will that shape my interactions with others? How will it impact my ability to truly be myself?
I think it’s time to start thinking outside of labels. It’s time to start thinking in terms of commonalities, our shared values and shared goals. This is not to suggest we turn into a collective, or mindless drones. But, the more we divide and sub-divide who we are based on labels and what petty power structures tell us, the more we all suffer for it.