The Labeling of Self

The 2016 presidential elections dominated media coverage globally, but for me, they brought back uncomfortable flashbacks of previous election years and memories of fellow Americans who rallied for votes at the university I studied at in Tokyo.

It made people more aware of their labels of self and political affiliations. It was a learning experience because until that time, I had no idea that to be black was anything other than being “African-American.” (You were not allowed to say Afro-American anymore. That just wasn’t done.)

On a fine day in October, we were sitting out in a little park with a few Middle Easterners, including two girls from Turkey, a few Iraqis and an Egyptian, a smattering of Germans and Italians and a couple of surly Bulgarian boys on scholarship in our group. The rest were Americans from Madison, Wisconsin and Chicago. Or so I thought.

The woman from Chicago, who we nicknamed “Chicago," was African-American. She had previously been a school teacher and went back to school to get her masters in Tokyo. After a while, the conversation turned to a woman named Patrice, from Jamaica. Patrice could have been Chicago’s sister as they looked and dressed alike. In response to Patrice’s description of an experience she had had as a black woman, the school teacher said something along the lines of, “We African-Americans understand. It is a Black experience” with a gesture that included Patrice. Patrice cut her off immediately. She held up her hand and said, “No one likes a blanket being thrown over them”. No one knew what she was saying, judging from the perplexed looks around the park benches where we were sitting.

“You, as a black woman have ancestors from Africa. I, as a black woman, also have ancestors from Africa. The similarity stops right there. You are an African-American because you are American. I am not. I am not American. I am Jamaican. My flag is black, green and gold, not red, white and blue. If anything, I would call myself African-Jamaican, though Jamaican suffices. That is all the label I need,” Patrice said.

The school teacher was quite tenacious and asked why it would make a difference as both Jamaica and the US were in the same hemisphere.

Patrice looked at her and said with a sting that verbally slapped. “Because African-Americans in our eyes have assimilated much more into mainstream white America, and we in Jamaica are closer to our African roots. When you come to visit, you stick out almost as much as any white man.”

“Or Irish,” interjected an amused and slightly angry woman sitting at the next bench. She was twice our age and she looked at all of us in turn. Her Irish brogue chopped through the air like a speed boat going over rough surf.  “Conversely, we have the Americans—and by that I mean Canadians and those from the United States—who walk around claiming to be Irish. They are not Irish. Unless you are 'Made in Ireland,' have an idea of the culture and have a working concept of Gaelic, you are NOT Irish. Your last name is an accident of birth and marriage,” she continued.

I relate more closely to my mom’s side of the family, which is German, but my last name is Kennedy, a typical Irish surname. The Irish woman’s attack left me feeling like the rug had been pulled out from under me.

One of the African students joined in and said, “You are of Africa, but you are not African. And even being African means that 1/3 is Arab in the north and 2/3 is black to the south.”

The same happened with the woman from Turkey who reminded people that all Turkish people aren’t Muslim. She wasn’t. And that Iranians and Turkish people were not Arab because the languages were very different. “Do Americans and Canadians get along so well because they have a common religion?” she asked. "Have Canadians and Americans ever gotten along?" The same went for the Middle East.

We didn’t even touch on Hispanic versus Latino with Mexico versus Argentina hegemony. Our friends from Argentina were at an All You Can Eat buffet off campus.

We all came out of the park with our egos a little bruised and worse for wear. Instead of peeking into our sandwiches, we had spent the hour delving into conceptions and misconceptions of labeling our identities.

The conversation left an irritation in our group. It was something we did not bring up again. It became our no-go zone at lunch time. We would talk about anything but ’labels’. However, as most of us studied political science, we were bound to be placed in the same classes. Sometimes we had to recruit students to sign up for a class to keep it from being dropped due to low demand. And this is where the second part of the label of self came up.

Our professor was a woman who had worked in SCAP, the US Occupational Government in Tokyo, at the end of the war. She was a translator and later became a nun and taught at our university. The topic in class was cultural awareness, specifically ethnic identification. Basically, it was almost the same group of people attending this class as had previously been involved in the cultural label discussion in the park. We sat in a huge ring so we could debate the material. The topic of how it felt to be a minority came up and the teacher mentioned historical minorities such as in Lebanon, which some of the Middle Easterners could relate to, to African-American minorities in the US for the students from the US exchange programs, and the Kurds in Turkey for the two students from Turkey.

There was one Japanese woman, who I will call Reiko. She looked around at all of us and said, “Japan has no minorities.” She was ignoring the Ainu of Hokkaido, the Burakumin untouchable class, the ethnic Koreans from the Tokugawa era, and the Okinawans, in an era with 95% middle class and total homogenization of culture in Japan that she lived in. That was the propaganda we faced back then in the 80s in local media and from our professors in university lectures.

No one said a word. We looked at the Japanese professor who shifted on her chair and looked back at the class, preparing a response.

Reiko quickly fired off. “I do know what it is like being in a minority. Once I was taking a trip across northern Africa and I realized I was the only white woman in the entire airport and probably the entire country,” she said.

Mouths dropped open around the table. There was a stunned silence in the seconds following Reiko’s declaration.

The woman from Iraq next to me kicked me under the table and made wild eye expressions that I should say something. Not me. If Reiko, who was Japanese, wanted to believe her attainment of minority status, who was I to upend her apple cart?

The school teacher from Chicago said in measured tones to the Japanese woman, “What makes you white?”

Reiko looked at her and said, “I am not black.”

And here it is in a nutshell. Do we simply look at things as an ‘us or them’ mentality? I feel that some of us have other choices. There are the possibilities of blurred lines and the multitude of colors, like those in a rainbow, or even overlaps like a Venn diagram. Will we be doomed to be categorized as 1/16 of our unpopular ethnicity (as was the case in Hitler’s Germany) and forgo the other 15/16 of our ethnic background? I don’t see why we should be.

I find it sad we have to look at things as two-dimensional on a single piece of paper when we should be expanding into three dimensions like a Cartesian plane. Culture is not like the labeling of a puny flat map on the table in our immediate grasp. To me, it is as vibrant, deep and multi-faceted as a hologram.

To me, labels are a tool. I despair that our behaviors and ingrained practices insist they be a detriment.

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