Who Am I?
The Politics of Labeling and Identity
By Tom Grinnell
You can call me a lefty, a pinko, a socialist, an NDPer and a political staffer, but not one of these labels adequately describes my identity.
My identity is much more complex than any one word.
Let’s talk about labeling.
Recently, another local news outlet published an article about the Bluffs Advocate, detailing my NDP affiliation based on where I work (I’m guessing the writer just looked me up on the professional networking website LinkedIn). I was labeled— put in a box, so to speak, and kept in a corner with the other writers with NDP connections. Interestingly, the writer chose to exclude my own self-proclaimed LinkedIn identity as a “social worker, community activist and researcher.
Sure, my work does define a part of who I am, but that is not my whole story. Many more factors than my NDP affiliation influence my writing. So if I’m not just an NDPer, who am I? Well, here is your answer: I am an urban, First Nations, Canadian male social worker and social justice advocate who loves the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tom Petty. I grew up in Beach, but also lived in Thunder Bay, making me part Northern Ontarian. I care deeply about humanity and making our world more equitable and a happier place for everyone.
Do you see the difficulty here with simply painting me or anyone else with only one brush stroke? When people create labels for us, it is problematic. Why, you ask? Well, let’s start by labeling me as a First Nations person. What comes to mind? A Masters degree? Short hair and a beard? A house of my own and a good family? None of the above? What likely occurred to many of you are issues such as poverty, alcoholism and drug abuse, isolation, and IdleNoMore.
Do you see how a label can immediately give me an identity that is not who I am at all? Labeling makes it easier for us to understand people in the way we want to understand them. We want to be able to see people through a lens that we already understand; it makes it easier for us.
Looking through an alternative lens means having to admit we don’t actually know a heck of a lot about a person, and don’t know where to begin or how to ask; we have no frame of reference. When we impose a label on someone, we limit his potential. By someone labeling me as an NDPer, you will now look at all of my columns with orange-tinted glasses (or maybe through red, blue or green ones). Although what I write may have nothing to do with the NDP, you may not be able to see past that label.
The same is true in many other aspects of life. The minute you label someone as gay, Muslim, black, or a woman, you may lose sight of other important aspects of their identity, limiting their potential to be perceived in the way they hope to be perceived. It is totally okay to self-identify, to create your own unique identity, and to change your identity as you grow as a person. But it’s unacceptable to allow yourself to be held back by labels that others have imposed on you. The reality is that all of us have complex and beautiful identities that reflect many different aspects of our lives.
The reality is that all of us have complex and beautiful identities that include a bunch of different aspects of our lives. Our communities are so vibrant with diversity that it is impossible for any one person to be labeled decisively. I am guilty myself of labeling people and I know it is wrong.
So please, the next time you are tempted to impose a label on someone, try to think beyond your own preconceived ideas of what that label means, and realize there is much more to each person than meets the eye. Most importantly, allow people to create their own identities, and respect the ways in which they express themselves.