The last couple of days, I've been thinking about identity and labels.
Actually, the thoughts started a couple weeks ago, when my oldest-best friend came to visit, and we ended up discussing the label of 'attachment parenting' and how the methods and techniques didn't all fit her parenting choices, but the underlying goals and philosophy did. And in fact, since she was also using active listening (and had been for years and I didn't even notice, GAH!) and respectful problem-solving and reasonable limits applied with individuality and respect to her kids, um... well, she probably ends up being more in line with the philosophy of AP than some of the people she knew who coslept were (that being the main thing she did not ever do - she would sleep in their room if they were sick, but they never got to sleep in hers. And they're not even ax murderers! Oy.).
Anyway, she's fond of labels for others, at least for adults, but she doesn't apply them nearly as rigidly to herself if she thought them up herself (this is not the same as the ones our parents gave us, which we then have to accept or reject later). I think that's true for most people - we label others rather more rigidly, because we can see the exterior checklist, but we don't label ourselves quite as much because we can see where we have range and variation and isn't it just being ME and not being 'a typical anything'?
And then more layers added on to the thinking. At Ask Moxie, we discussed disability and labels, the fear of and the utility of knowing a diagnosis - the fear of being defined by the label, and the reality that the label represents core information that may be valuable. So, label but with lower-case letters?
Following that was a discussion of race and raising White Males in America - what is our responsibility for how we raise them, to be sensitive to race and gender, neither ignoring issues as if they do not exist (quick, glance away!) nor clumping people entirely by outward features, nor again assuming meaning, function, culture, class, status, interests, abilities (etc.) because of those features or because of even a stated and known and self-chosen (by the other) identity. I agree that where you start is here: "The first part of this is raising kids who are happy with who they are, who know what makes them special, and who are willing to work hard but also know their own areas of competence. If you really know who you are, then you don't need to think less of anyone else."
And then I ended up at one of the blogs Moxie linked, thinking about what regions of the world feel like home (for me they're not related to ethnicity at all), and about what we call children whose parents are of different heritage from each other, and making myself uncomfortable a bit because I'm quite multi-ethnic but it is so long ago in my heritage that it is more my great-grandparents' struggle than mine - who am I to speak for them? And yet I connect with that, too, as the family historian, their stories and questions and struggles are part of my life. And is it even necessary to specify the reason, in the form of my role? Is it just okay to feel their distress because they were family, or even just because they were human? Will others think I am working off White Middle-Class Guilt if I'm overly empathetic or trying to understand? But as Moxie noted, making oneself a little uncomfortable is a good thing - a sign of learning, being uncomfortable. I'd rather that than blind comfort with no growth.
All of these resources and ideas and questions are layering together, but I'm not sure where they end up. I read (and now can't find the dang study) that the more kids are exposed in early childhood to ethnic diversity, the less biased their assumptions about others. So, our choice initially with the first Montessori school was good - White Middle America was the minority. There were plenty of white kids, but many of them were French or German or English or Dutch or otherwise of a specific ethnicity or national origin within Europe (or were bi-cultural/bi-racial with clear, recent national origins). It made for some interesting understandings, including that one can look quite similar but be quite different - the girl who spoke nearly no English and didn't understand cultural references at the beginning of the year was Swedish, the boy who looked the most different from everyone else in facial characteristics, hair, and eyes was middle-American in accent and social expectations and culture. So I guess I'm glad we made a good choice on that, a useful choice.
Hmm. All those issues intersect into a question - where and when should we use labels, and where and when should we avoid them?
In general, in parenting it is assumed that using labels is limiting for our kids (see Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too for a discussion of labels and siblings, for example). So, labels - The Smart One, Mr Sporto, Clumsy, even simple labels like 'the Eldest' - can all create expectations of limitation. This one is, 'George, who is good at math'. Label. That one is, 'Katie, the artist of the family'.
The labels not only limit and define what is expected of that child, but exclude the other child(ren). If Katie is THE artistic one, then what are the allowed expressions of the other children? My little brother (whom I've called 'the Golden Child' - and I use the label knowing that it is a label) assumed for most of his childhood and into his late adolescence that he was Not Good At Art - because, well, all the GIRLS were introduced as 'Good At Art'. Him? He was just the littlest, the last, the youngest son, the cub. It wasn't until he was in high school that he began to wonder if maybe he was good at art, too, but just wonder. And it wasn't until college - a solid year in - that he discovered that he was not only good at art, he was quite talented at art. All us 'good at art' girls are now doing other things, and he has a degree in fine arts and a glass studio (where he makes the most gorgeous icicles for Christmas decorations, plus jewelry). Yeah, he has another job, too, but he's the only one making the art pay at all. He resents (or did, long ago) that the label excluded him. Everyone else was good at art. He was... well, the other.
I made the same assumption about brains. My elder sisters and brother were SMART. They were the geniuses of the family. I was, um, not. I was the stupid one, because DUH, if they were the smart ones, there was only stupid left! (Oy, but hey, trust a 7 year old to make an assessment, and they'll make a seven-year-old's assessment!) My mom, in that case, did not apply the label (though she is rather too fond of them), but it was present in the air, and we all knew that the IQ tended to leak out with additional kids (two points lower per child in sequence, I was told by my older siblings, which means WE are smarter than YOU). And yeah, so they are smarter. It took me ages to realize that didn't mean I was therefore non-smart.
Not all that useful to me, the labels. The good child, the bad child, the musician, the artist, they're all un-useful.
And yet, humans naturally divide and separate, categorize, sort, and assess in order to survive. Selective attention is the basis of neuro-typical function, it is how we recognize what is important - and what is important is identified by how we were raised, what we were taught, the things to which we were exposed. Stereotypes have a function in our brains, and it is fighting upstream to eliminate them entirely, yes? But refining them ends up feeling like profiling, too - Is the nervous person of central-Asian descent a terrorist, or just a guy afraid of flying? How refined does one have to get? And is doing so even useful?
I don't have answers. I know that for my kids, using labels only works if there are so many labels that they lose weight and become just part of the litany. If I remember to weight not by talent or beauty but by work, intention, and enjoyment, the letters get smaller. Instead of Mr B Who Rides And Does Art, it is Mr B (who loves riding, has enthusiasm for all visual arts, deconstructs and rebuilds structures, lights up in museums, can spend hours without tiring in gardens of all sorts, enjoys working together with his brother on stories, delights in visual and tactile puzzles, enjoys melting his icecream before he eats it...). I am okay with his name being the label.
It is in immersion that we change our attitudes, in part. Just like the kindergarteners who change their function based on what is familiar, becoming familiar is part of becoming more human. Even what we consider attractive changes, and changes again, based on what we're exposed to (poor study subjects, one study exposed people to computer-warped images of people's faces, and then tested various samples for attractiveness measures and found that people exposed to the warped images began to select more warping as attractive than those who had not been exposed to the warped images... you can really mess with 'that which I find appealing' by just changing 'that to which I am exposed'.)
For the learning, there are a few rules. It helps not to be prurient - to not answer the itch to know things that one would find odd to be asked oneself. Is it genuinely useful to know whether someone is Eurasian (or Chinese, or Ugandan, or Equadorian), compared to, say, knowing if they like the same tv show you like? We ask similarly stupid questions of our kids (meaningless questions like 'how was school today?' that turn them off just as quickly - compared to 'What do you think of the Math teacher?' or 'I'm curious about the sports program, what do you think of it?'). Learning to ask meaningful questions should just be part of our social education. And when we can't think of a meaningful question, perhaps not even asking the nosy questions that come to mind (oh, GOD, the questions that are asked). Better to get to know by just being, being with, being around.
And being Acceptant, being willing to be open to the truth that what is for the other person just is, and is not for us to measure or judge or evaluate, just for us to allow in. Being Loving, in action, by patience, by willfully choosing to step past the question of whether there IS love present, and simply act WITH love, because that honors who we are far more clearly than waiting on love before acting can ever do. And being Faithful, to ourselves and to others, assuming that their choices are valid and meet a real need, even if they are confusing to us. Choosing not to wonder if the action is intentionally meant to harm and instead choosing to wonder what need is left unfulfilled, what true and valuable and urgent necessity of life is hungering inside. Choosing to see them as fully human, in good faith.
It takes effort. Discipline, self-awareness, a willingness to look with a jaundiced eye at our own motivations and our own skills. It's not comfortable, most of the time. But I think that both Miss Manners and my children would agree, the effort is worth the struggle against our baser instincts.