Imagine a community or a workplace that is an amalgam of races, cultures, genders, and languages where you are distinguished by only one difference—your name. I was fortunate to experience this environment for four years in an international high school in Mexico City. It was my first time outside of racially homogenous South Korea and I was engulfed within a melting pot of students from all over the world. Even though I was learning a new language and immersed in a new culture, I blended right in.
How do we aspire to reach this place from our current climate, where heightened racism narratives and identity politics keep widening distances that prevent people from coming together, lessening individuals’ sense of belonging, and promoting unfair generalizations of people based on racial groupings?
Our penchant for racial labeling, even when well-intentioned, is in and of itself a bias. This might be a new concept for many people to grasp, because for years America’s race-based diversity programs have relied upon labeling.
Our leaders, media, businesses, institutions, organizations, government, and everyday people routinely use racial labels, which inadvertently increases divides. Racial labeling erases the human being behind the label and leads to stereotyping people. Those stereotypes create biases, which in turn leads to racism.
Becoming Color and Label Neutral
I was born in South Korea to South Korean parents, became a naturalized American, and have lived in the U.S. for the past 48 years. Naturally, I look Asian and have a yellow skin tone. Unfortunately, I can’t get away from being labeled and stereotyped as Asian American, Korean American, or minority. I wish I could be perceived just as a person living in this country.
While our eyes see the physical characteristics of others, we can also meet that person from within. I call this capacity “neutral eyes”—we see the differences in others, but those physical distinctions become irrelevant. It’s not our vernacular that is the issue, it’s how differences are viewed and defined that need to shift.
Think about the myriad of racial labels we put to people living in the United States: African American, Asian American, Native American, Italian American, Mexican American, Muslim American, white, black, Latino, people of color, minority, etc. These labels are assigned regardless of who the person is inside, whether they were born here, or how long they’ve lived in this country.
We lump people into racial categories as though all the people in a certain race group are the same and, thus, different from those in another group—creating an us vs. them mentality. My global upbringing has taught me differently: Across all our differences, we connect on human commonalities that transcend race and skin color.
Identifying Ourselves Beyond Skin Color and Race
How we identify ourselves affects our sense of self, our sense of belonging, and our capacity to connect with people. We see others the same way we see ourselves. Of course, we should be proud and embrace our heritages. However, we run the risk of erecting barriers when we distinguish ourselves from others primarily based on our skin color and race. When we see others as individuals who share the universal bond of human essences that we all possess—hope, love, happiness, acceptance, sadness, fear, anger, spirituality, and ambition—we expand our horizon and reduce racial division and distance.
Ask yourself how you primarily identify yourself. This question will increase your awareness of your sense of self and your thought processes. Your answer may help you to understand how you might see and identify others, and the way you interact with them. It may also give you cues on how you might want to change your perspective.
Reducing the Usage of Racial Labeling
Racism is divisive, destructive, and complex. Eliminating racism may not be realistic, however, we can choose to reduce the forces that propagate it. When I am being classified as a minority, I can’t help but to feel reduced, less, and separate. Numerous people I know share my sentiment that racial labeling leads to a feeling that is not empowering and can support victim narratives.
Describing a person by their race or origin is not an issue. I can be described as an “Asian and originally from South Korea who went to school in Charlottesville, Virginia, and is married with two grown children, etc.” However, when I am defined and put into a bucket labeled Asian American or minority, my individuality is erased.
If I had a choice to pick the most pivotal place to begin to combat racism, it would be a reduction of racial labeling. By being mindful of the negative effects of racial labeling on people and in the human space, we can shift our mindsets and unlearn behaviors that do not nourish ourselves or others.
A good place to begin will be asking: “Why do I label people?” “What’s the purpose?” “What’s the gain?” and “What’s the harm?” Think about the times you found yourself using racial labels and how you might have viewed people differently if you dropped the racial modifiers. I believe a shift away from labels could change the way you look at people and open the human space. Each of our collective efforts will contribute in moving the needle on racism.