Our little household, four persons, three generations, carries many labels: senior, boomer, student, Jew, Christian, atheist, agnostic, straight, bisexual, questioning, emerging, EU citizen, U.S. citizen, dual national, person of Indian origin… Some of these we share, others are exclusive to one of us; not one of them sums any of us up in our entirity. I believe that labels are conveniences in a busy, noisy world; they are walls, shutting out the bustle and the noise—but also the possibilities of other and overlapping ideas and ways of life.
I grew up in England, in a world that still remembered “pulling together” during the Blitz. We lived in a university town that had provided safe haven for emigres driven out of Europe for their modes of belief, even for their very being. I was taught that it was not right to attach labels to people—although I later found out that the grown-ups had a fair stock of assumptions, tacit labels, if you will.
Then I came to the United States and found that in this land that opens wide its doors, everyone is explicitly labeled. Many labels are self-imposed: when anyone can belong, maybe it’s all too human to stake one’s cultural claim and build a wall around it—a wall that then can serve to label those outside it. I am now the “non-Jewish spouse,” the “straight spouse” (please!), and was even, for a while, a “resident alien.” By my accent, I am here commonly identified as British—read “white”—yet I am also claimed as a “woman of color.” On the other hand, a young woman I once met identified herself as “African” because her father was from Egypt and was mortified that she was not accepted by the “students of color” at her midwestern university because her skin was far fairer than mine.
One Sunday afternoon when I was very young, I was taken to visit an English country house. Wandering around its extensive grounds, the grown-ups apparently got us lost. I was more than a little upset, but our friend gave me a tip that I have never forgotten: If you walk in a straight line, you will eventually find a wall. And if you then follow that wall, you will find a door to let you out.
This I do believe: that while we all might need our labels—to recognize one another in a crowd, to take refuge behind from the crowd—we must find those doors and keep them open.
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