Have you ever found yourself labeling those who are different from you? I have. I grew up in the 60’s and became a teen in the 70’s; it was a predominately white culture where it was normal for me to hear words like fag, queer, and from time to time the ‘n’ word. I never thought much of it, no one seemed to. My world was small and the demographic was mostly unicultural. It was the way we interacted. But I must say that those three words, as a boy, sounded unusual to me. But I was never actually aware of anyone who fit in those categories, at least not for a long time. As for the ‘n’ word, I would go to the corner store and ask the owner to fill up a little paper sack with 10 cents worth of ‘nigger babies!’ What? Yep, those delicious black licorice candies in the shape of little people were called nigger babies. That was my world. And I never knew the effect that these labels would have on me as I grew up.
The demeaning label that I heard most was ‘fag or faggot’. Boys would sometimes call each other that in jest, but it was meant, in a weird sort of way, to degrade the masculinity of the other. The label was powerful. I recall a conversation I had years later in a Chiang Mai restaurant. A visiting friend found out I loved watching the Amazing Race on television. The current season at the time featuered a gay couple. That was rare then. As I was always a week behind watching the series, when the visitor let it slip that the gay couple had won, I responded in disgust, “No way, not those fags!” The words came out so quickly that they surprised even me. I had believed in the label.
Months after that conversation about the gay couple, I was at the Don Muang airport waiting for guests to come through the arrival’s gate in Bangkok. I saw a white man dressed as a woman. I immediately went into critical mode. “Man, that’s a white guy! Shoot! And he can’t even put lipstick on right!” As I silently mocked him, another inner voice spoke to me, “Peter, would you be so offended if that was your own son?” It felt like a spiritual slap in the heart! The phrase ‘if it was your son’ woke me up to my bias against the gay community. I was guilty of seeing that man as less than part of the human family, judging him as somewhat unworthy, all because of the lens of my demeaning label.
I am Canadian. We are known for their tolerance. So when NHL commentator Don Cherry castigated immigrants to Canada on live television as, “You people,” it riled up a lot of people. How could he talk like that! Don was upset because, in his view, the immigrant population disrespected Canada by not wearing a poppy during the Remembrance Day holiday. He called them, “You people!” Then off he went about these people not appreciating the sacrifices our soldiers made to give us Canadians ‘milk and honey.’ Soon it was frontline news worldwide! To the surprise of some, Sportsnet fired Don faster than a Bobby Hull slapshot! To a lot of boomers it seemed like a lot of hoopla about nothing. But was it just a slip of the tongue? We’ll never really know, but what we do know is that no one appreciates being dehumanized with a label.
And this is the thing, we all have used labels at some time or another. Throughout our lifetime we have unconsciously accumulated these biases and, for the most part, are unaware of them. Those sneaky biases snuck through the backdoor of daily conversations, politics, culture, and even religion. Religious and political leaders disguise labels and biases as concerns. One is worried that their followers will be contaminated by too much relationship with the world, while the other stokes our fears by repeating their concerns for the safety of the country, families, jobs, and the future.
“If we let all these people in they will make it worse for all of us!”
So take a look at us now, thousands of years of humanity living together on earth and we still see whole people groups through the lens of demeaning labels. We seemed to have forgotten our history lessons about the pogroms and genocides and religious wars! Here in France the majority of descendants of immigrants still feel like they can never truly be French. Why? White French culture told them to wear the label ‘not-really-french’.” It’s too easy to see that labeling remains present in every realm of life. And honestly they do nothing to bring healing to our world.
I’ve had to come to grips with my own biases and labels and change the way I saw certain groups of people. It could be that, like me, you do too! Maybe the way you see gays, asylum seekers, overweight people, handicapped folks, old people, blacks, and any race for that matter, etc, as nuisances at best and unworthy at worst.
What should we do then? Begin by reminding yourself of how easy it is to fear those who are different than us. Start there. Do you harbour fears and biases towards those who look different than you or believe passionately in things you don’t? If you do then realize that any labels you use will only divide the human race. It begins with avoidance and usually ends in some kind of judgement. We divide the world into good and bad, worthy and unworthy, etc. The last step is the one we most need to hear. Please listen to the words of Jesus in my paraphrase, “It’s easy to love those who like you back. Nothing special about that at all. But I say go and love even those to whom you have given the label ‘wrong’, ‘unworthy’, or ‘enemy.’” Can’t find any advice much better than this in today’s bookstores!
I have had to let go of my labels, many times in fact. It took time and a deep look at my own heart. I finish with a story of a boy, a son, who came out as gay. He was 15 years old when he wrote to Patricia and I something like this, “Dear Mom and Dad, I need to tell you that I am gay!” That day my world was turned upside down. Though my label of ‘gay’ had started to be dismantled in a Bangkok airport, I was still holding on to the idea that gay people are just damaged by sin. I told my son that evening he was mistaken, that he was straight. I took him rock climbing and did more father things with him. But he remained gay. We took him to counseling. The counselor, a christian, sat us down and said, “Your son is really gay. Love him without trying to change him into your image.” And through love, ours for him and his for us, we have learned to never look at gay people through the lens of dissapointment, derision or scorn.
It’s time we drop the demeaning labels that have to do with gender, race or religion and chose to love unconditionally all people. This has become for me the only way to live in the neighborhood!