Don’t Call Me White9 min read

Labels we use in society are useful to quickly iden­tify and cat­a­logue the infor­ma­tion our brains process each day of our lives. However, these labels come with asso­ci­a­tions and expec­ta­tions, and even if these pre­de­ter­mi­na­tions are pos­i­tive, they still cause harm to the person who gets placed in a cat­e­gory. 

They are insep­a­rable from the per­cep­tion of the person who hears them, and somehow insep­a­rable from the iden­tity of the person wearing the label.  These words can inspire warmth and cama­raderie, or they can be received with scorn and dis­trust.  At times, when applied to the self, a label can be both a great source of pride and equally a pro­found point of shame.  

A label is not what truly defines another’s core per­son­ality or poten­tial. Often the labels we use are not very accu­rate, and we divide our­selves in to sub­cat­e­gories with words like white or Black. Neither are accu­rate descrip­tions of skin pig­men­ta­tion and dis­tract from the fact that we are all humans, mem­bers of the same species, Homo sapiens

While there’s no bio­log­ical marker which defines race, the social con­struct of race has been used as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of supremacy and divi­sion throughout all of human his­tory, right up there with class and reli­gion.  At the same time, race when asso­ci­ated with a cul­tural iden­tity pro­vides for people an imme­diate point of con­nec­tion with others who have common ground and share the common struggle of being a part of an oppressed group.

How won­derful that we have been met with a paradox.  Now we have some hope of making progress.  –Niels Bohr

Physicist Niels Bohr notes that a paradox pro­vides a way to see that there is not always a single way some­thing exists, nor a single way that some­thing can be per­ceived.  He states, “Two sorts of truth: pro­found truths rec­og­nized by the fact that the oppo­site is also a pro­found truth, in con­trast to triv­i­al­i­ties where oppo­sites are obvi­ously absurd.” 

In some ways, labels pro­vide us with pro­found truths, wherein the oppo­sites are both true.  Race is a social con­struct and does not exist; on the other hand, race is a social con­struct and does exist.  Scientifically, it doesn’t exist; how­ever, race def­i­nitely exists as a point of cat­e­go­riza­tion that has been used to create supremacy, hier­ar­chies, slavery, war, and geno­cide.  Those two truths should be main­tained and rec­og­nized as they are valu­able in com­bat­ting supremacy.  Denying that race exists is to inval­i­date the very real strug­gles that people in oppressed groups face; how­ever, to sug­gest that race exists as a sci­en­tific fact would be to say that someone from a spe­cific race is always _________ (insert any descriptor here). 

Even if the qual­i­fier is pos­i­tive, it imposes a stan­dard that not everyone will meet. It pro­motes ranking.  For example, if someone says that Asian people are good at math, it will cause indi­vid­uals who aren’t good at math to feel infe­rior.  It sets up a com­par­ison which sug­gests that Asians are supe­rior in some way to other races.  Implying that race and math are related in an innate way is untrue and takes away from mean­ingful dis­cus­sions.  It’s a simple and lazy way to avoid exploring what cul­tural and edu­ca­tional fac­tors con­tribute to aca­d­emic achieve­ment and allows people to absolve them­selves of any respon­si­bility to con­tribute to the society and envi­ron­ment or to stop con­tributing to sys­tems that cause inequality.

Still, race (or any other cat­e­gory) is used as a triv­i­ality, a mean­ing­less qual­i­fier where the oppo­sites are absurd.  For example, people project stereo­types and dual­i­ties where none exist onto others to assume, for example, white people are trust­worthy and Black people are not, or that Muslims are vio­lent and Christians are benev­o­lent.  These false per­cep­tions are mean­ing­less and used to keep power struc­tures in place that advan­tage one person arbi­trarily and dis­ad­van­tage the other.   

When are labels unacceptable?

Labels shift per­cep­tions.  They are used as a way to dehu­manize rather than describe us for any prac­tical pur­pose.  The far­ther a label is from a person, the more per­mis­sion that person feels to dehu­manize the bearer of that label. 

For example, if a person is in a dif­ferent country or speaks a dif­ferent lan­guage, they’re not as real to the person who is com­fort­able with labels.  Maxims like, If we are true patriots, then that means we put our own first, are exam­ples of how these per­cep­tions allow for labels to create an illu­sion of sep­a­ra­tion that per­mits us to view some lives as more impor­tant than others.  These dualisms do not exist without a sense of a winner and a loser. 

Perhaps this is why autis­tics are not allowed to rep­re­sent them­selves in sci­ence and the main­stream.  We cease to become a com­modity, and our value as cogs in a multi-billion dollar machine dimin­ishes. 

Labels also create in the minds of most people a stereo­typ­ical per­cep­tion on how others should act, fos­tering inac­cu­rate expec­ta­tions. Labels are being used in our society as a tool to cloud real issues, cre­ating a divide between per­cep­tive (but not real) “oppo­sites.”

In 1995, I heard the song, “Don’t Call Me White,” by NoFx. Since then, I have been thinking about the neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions asso­ci­ated with being white. The words ring very true for me. I’m living in a country that will claim all men are cre­ated equal, while at the same time prac­ticing unjust and dis­pro­por­tionate use of authority and the (in)justice system against anyone with dark pig­men­ta­tion– not because they have done some­thing wrong, but because when the police offi­cers began assessing the scene, they used a loaded label to iden­tify people involved.  In using these labels, we our­selves are con­tributing to the problem.

Inaccuracy leads to oppres­sion.  Labels paint an incom­plete pic­ture of a person, or a false pic­ture.  When we allow labels to have any weight or meaning in how we per­ceive another, we are always guilty of being com­plicit in oppres­sion. 

Do not call me white if you are going to give me a loan you wouldn’t give to a person of color.  Don’t call me white if you’re going to ignore my expired reg­is­tra­tion but pull over the Black man behind me for the same thing.  Don’t call me white if you’re going to give me the ben­efit of the doubt when I enter your store but fear that another man is going to steal because of his skin color.  Don’t call me white if you assume I am going to laugh at your racist jokes. 

Call me white when you are ready to admit that you stereo­type people and have con­sid­ered me to be better than someone else based on inac­cu­ra­cies.  Call me white when you point out some way that I have ben­e­fitted from people’s big­otry. But don’t ever call me white if you want me to be com­plicit with your prej­u­dice.

Don’t call me autistic if you want to assume that I need your inter­fer­ence in my life.  Don’t call me autistic if you want to make guesses about what I can or can’t do.  Don’t call me autistic if it sep­a­rates my indi­vid­u­alism and autonomy from my neu­ro­log­ical dif­fer­ences. 

Call me autistic when you, too, are autistic and you want to estab­lish common ground.  Call me autistic if you want to learn, with humility, more about how autism is a part of what makes up my iden­tity.  Don’t ever call me autistic if you think you know what autism means.

 Labels give per­mis­sion to dehu­manize.  Once you attach a label to someone, you will miss out on the com­plexity of the human spirit.  

When a police officer reports to an inci­dent, having a pre­con­ceived notion of what is going on based on descrip­tive labels that have been pro­vided, they have already decided upon a course of action and how much force they will be applying to resolve the issue to which they have been called.

For example, police are responding to a dis­tur­bance.  An African American female is sit­ting on the floor in a crowded public facility with a child, awaiting an appoint­ment.  When offi­cers arrive they begin to forcibly escort the woman out of the building, laying hands on her and her child, causing more of a dis­tur­bance than the woman sit­ting on the floor. 

Sitting on the floor is not a crime, but it’s a behavior that is out­side of the stereo­typ­ical norm.  As the woman protests and objects, white onlookers auto­mat­i­cally vil­lainize her and pity her child.  They make con­jec­tures about what kind of mother she is.  They assume she’s guilty of a crime. 

Why were the police offi­cers called?  If the woman were white, her behavior would likely have been regarded with sym­pathy, maybe as someone with a mental ill­ness or as a cry for help. 

The people who called the police did not see an equal.  They saw a nui­sance, maybe even a threat.  The police heard the woman’s descrip­tion and eval­u­ated the sit­u­a­tion as hos­tile.  Some people real­ized it was not fair, but they hid behind their illu­sion of “white­ness” because they didn’t want to lose their secu­rity in the social hier­archy that puts a Black woman under arrest for sit­ting on a floor. 

A glaring example of how labels influ­ence public per­cep­tion that most people are familiar with is the United States of America’s most recent Supreme Court Justice appointee, Brett M. Kavanaugh. Many labels are attached to this man, none of them being the single attribute that defines him, but clearly the label of Conservative Republican was the one that influ­enced how people set­tled on a con­clu­sion about his char­acter. People on both sides spoke out for and against the accu­sa­tions that sur­rounded his nom­i­na­tion.

From my obser­va­tions, as a neu­tral person not beholden to party loy­alty, I could see that he had no busi­ness as a nom­inee, not because of any of his labels, not because of the alle­ga­tions being brought against him, but for the simple fact that he is missing a key attribute required for being Supreme Court Justice: he lacks non­par­ti­sanism.

All the media out­lets and people I know who argued and debated this nom­i­na­tion com­pletely over­looked the most impor­tant issue: is he a good fit for the job?  Is he ded­i­cated to not let­ting prej­u­dice and party loy­alty inter­fere with the cause of Justice?  Is he going to con­tribute to arbi­trary loy­al­ties which allow for supremacy to under­mine the Constitution and its Amendments?

When we use labels to form opin­ions about others, we miss an oppor­tu­nity to under­stand a person for what makes them an individual—for what makes them human.  This sti­fles progress, too, because when someone is afraid to break away from stereo­types, they stifle their own poten­tial.

Science and Truth are great equal­izers, and when humans are con­cerned, there is one truth that is sci­en­tif­i­cally applied: no two people are exactly alike and there are no safe assump­tions about them.

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7 Comments

  1. Thinking about this fur­ther, while every­thing you have written here is absolutely spot on, unfor­tu­nately, it won’t change too many peo­ple’s atti­tudes. Yes, police often wrongly and dis­pro­por­tion­ately target African Americans, but when African Americans speak out against it, White Americans simply shrug it off as them playing the ‘race card.’ In fact, racism has evolved to the point where many white people think they are the vic­tims. They feel they can’t get jobs because of Affirmative Action or the taxes from their hard earned wages are going to sup­port African Americans who rely on wel­fare. It is these gross mis­con­cep­tions that need to be broken first if we ever have a chance of erad­i­cating labels. The same sort of atti­tudes are now being shown to people with Autism as well and it stinks.

    1. Author

      Thank you for reading. I do not dis­agree with you. I do not know how to create change. The only ability I have is using my voice to show I am not com­pla­cent in the injus­tices I see around me.

  2. How about paying atten­tion to what the labels actu­ally mean instead of assuming that everyone who uses a fac­tual descriptor is auto­mat­i­cally attaching a pile of stereo­types to it? Race is a bio­log­ical reality. It affects your appear­ance and your risk of cer­tain health con­di­tions (eg melanoma). It doesn’t affect your worth, but some people think it does. Pretending not to acknowl­edge race means being blind to racism, and it implies that you see the diver­sity in fea­tures of people from dif­ferent regions as a bad thing.

    1. Did you read the article, dude? I don’t think you read the article. You lit­er­ally said what the article says…

  3. don’t call me white and then tell me your brother (also pre­sum­ably white) can’t get dis­ability “because he’s the wrong color” while you’re ON THE CLOCK and taking eeg leads off my head. (i doubt my letter to her then-employers is why she was no longer with the com­pany involved, but it might have been the last straw con­sid­ering that’s at least bor­der­line racist and the client-medical pro deal.)

    it’s nothing com­pared with what actual PoC go through, but i seri­ously detest people assuming i’m going to be down for sh*tty white people sol­i­darity.

    i didn’t want kavanaugh just based on his ver­i­fi­able court deci­sions. then it came out that there was a non-zero chance he omitted and slanted his answers to get senate con­fir­ma­tion for his DC cir­cuit court judge posi­tion. and THEN we found out “sex offender” (imo, at least. i believe pro­fessor blasey ford and the other women who came for­ward, because i’m a sur­vivor.)

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