What’s in a Label?

By: Anthony Tran

During a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, Raven-Symoné, an actress who rose to fame after stints on The Cosby Show and Disney Channel, spoke out against the use of labels with respect to her sexual orientation and her race.

After being asked by Winfrey about her sexual identity and same-sex relationship, Symoné made clear of her aversion to being categorized with a label. She then asserted, “I’m tired of being labeled. I’m an American. I’m not an African-American, I’m an American […] and that’s a colorless person. Because we’re all people; I have lots of things running through my veins.” Though Winfrey quickly pointed out the potential controversy in her statements, she asked Symoné to clarify her statement. Symoné continued, “I have darker skin. I have a nice, interesting grade of hair. I connect with Caucasian, I connect with Asian, I connect with black, I connect with Indian. I connect with each culture.”

The responses to Symoné’s statements were swift and, at times, harsh. From cable news outlets to the twittersphere, Symoné suffered backlash and ignited passionate conversations about racial labeling during a time when race has come to the forefront of societal consciousness, much in part thanks to the continuing protests against Mike Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, MO and various other incidents in the country that have highlighted racial disparities and notions of racial privilege.

But Symoné is hardly the first celebrity to speak out against racial labeling. During an interview with BET, actress Zoe Saldana stated, “there is no such thing as people of color” and, in a GQ interview, musical artist Pharrell Williams called on individuals to embrace “the new black” and seemingly denounced the existence of institutional inequities: “I’m a black man. I’m happy [… b]ut the thing is, let’s not ask nobody for no more sympathy. Let’s get together ourselves and support ourselves.” The criticism after Symoné’s recent interview only adds to what has been a continuing struggle in how best to address racial labels, which have been a part of our society since the Age of Exploration, and their implications.

Although race historically developed from a biological standpoint, today, it is clear that race, though it may have something to do with biology, is largely a sociopolitical construct. In Paul Spikard’s essay, “The Illogic of American Racial Categories,” he explains that racial labels and distinctions were created under the veil of science as tools of dominance and power of the white majority. By placing a label, and the associated negative stereotypes relating to morality and other personality traits, on someone, it became that much easier for the majority to rationalize and strengthen its oppression of the minority.

Some racial labels are even acknowledged as developing as completely social or political tools and hold little sway as identity markers within the communities they were meant to serve. “Asian American” is a term of political empowerment that arose out of the anti-Vietnam War and black power movements and sought to unite different ethnic groups with diverse histories to attain visibility. However, according to a survey conducted by the PEW Research Center, less than 20% of Asian Americans today identify with this moniker. Similarly, another PEW study showed that less than 35% of Hispanics use “Hispanic” or “Latino” to self-identify.

Racial labels and identities are no longer clear-cut, and it has become an increasing trend to buck conventional categories in favor of personal choice. The results of the 2010 Census showed that 21.7 million, roughly 1 in 14, respondents, chose to write-in identity markers instead of checking one of the standard provided boxes. According to sociology professor Carolyn Lieber, a potential reason for this trend is that the issue of racial identity is deeply individual and one that goes beyond the checkbox: “The world is changing, and more people today feel free to identify themselves however they want.”

What these celebrities seem to advocate for apparently borrows from the same line of reasoning that supports greater personal choice in identifying oneself. However, their responses are actually implying that they are against any racial labeling at all (i.e. “colorless”) or that they want to distance themselves from an identity entrenched in negative stereotypes (i.e. “the new black”). In addition, it seems that they equate the mere existence of racial labels and acknowledgement of difference as a direct contributor to social inequality. This viewpoint is overly idealistic, flawed, and neglects to recognize the inextricable connections between race and society today.

By shunning race or denying the existence of racial labels, celebrities are doing no one any favors with their faux-progressive thinking. Although they may believe our society is now “colorless,” racial labels, in any form, still remain important to communities of color. Though born as a way to differentiate and discriminate, racial labels, as Spikard points out, actually serve as a powerful tool for group self-actualization and the basis for political power. Communities of color organize and unite through commonly held histories and identities. For instance, for new immigrants to America, racial labels have developed into community organizations that can provide these individuals with a sense of peoplehood in a new and foreign land. Racial labels, though census data, also still maintain their powerfully political role. They dictate how anti-discrimination laws are enforced, contribute to how education policy is developed, and serve policymakers in deciding how to divide federal funds.

The reality is, as much as people of color would like to be acknowledged as regular human beings, racial prejudice and discrimination still exist and denying labels silences individuals who undergo these experiences. As Carimah Townes notes in her column in response to Symoné’s comments, the ability to deny a racial label also comes from a place of privilege and high visibility. Celebrities do not face the same challenges with their race, and their fame and economic fortune allows them to shed their identities. Many other individuals do not possess the same privileges and must confront how others perceive their racial identity on a daily basis. By asserting their own conception of what it means to be a certain racial label, individuals can fight against the negative stereotypes and preconceived notions that people still associate with certain racial labels.

And unlike this seemingly popular contention, there is nothing wrong with possessing a racial identity; we can all be human beings and still identify as being Black, Chinese American, or White. While these celebrities’ responses make the two situations seem mutually exclusive, acknowledging difference does not have to come at the sacrifice of aspirations for equality. Instead, it is much more realistic and affirming to seek to understand peoples’ lived experiences as individuals of color in forming ideas and plans to create a more equal and just society.

Symoné has since tempered her comments, and she acknowledges that she did not deny her status as a black individual. Though the dialogue remains heated, her comments continue to spark important conversations about race and identity in America and prove that labels are more than just a mere name.

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