Last night, I had the honor of being the keynote speaker at Loyola University in Baltimore for Hispanic Heritage Month. One of the things I was asked to speak about was our tendency to define people how we want to see them as opposed to how they see themselves. There is a complicating aspect of this when we add the element of ethnicity or class or race or other more specific aspects of identity to it. For example, people think they know what being a Latina means because of their own experience and then they want to use that definition to apply it to others, even if it doesn’t fit for the other person’s experience. While I talked about that more specifically in the keynote, I thought I’d share a small, more universal excerpt from the talk here today:
I’m the parent of a three year old boy, and he has a little play area in our house. If you have little siblings or you babysit you know that without some organizational system, any space can be turned into a hot mess in just seconds. And so as your kid accumulates cars and Mr. Potato Heads and Little People and train tracks, you come up with a plan. A plan that is going to make all of this so much easier to deal with. And what’s that plan? Boxes, bins, buckets.
You label each box and you give it one thing that it will hold. Legos, if you will, or Play-doh. And then this other bin is for books. You get the picture, right? And then everything has a place, there is order, and it all makes sense to us, right?
But here’s the thing. The desire for sorting things into boxes isn’t just born from a need to organize toys. It is a human desire to want to look at most things on their surface and give them a label—and we don’t just do it with inanimate objects.
Maybe when I walked in here and you heard my accent, you thought, “Oh! Latina from the South. I know what that means.” and put me in a box of your understanding. On the first day of class, when someone introduced herself and said she was from Washington Heights, you thought oh, that means this. You saw someone dressed Goth and you thought well, he’s that.
We have a tendency to want to make things simple for ourselves. And simplification can be a good thing in some places. Simplification in some arenas can even mean a breakthrough—progress. But when we try to simplify people, when we put them in a box, that’s not progress. It is pressure. It is punishment. It is a disservice. Because what we’re saying is “I can only see you in the way that I have seen things before. I cannot allow for you to have your own nuance.”
Each of us- no matter our background- wants to be allowed to be who we are as we understand it, as we have experienced it, as we know how. We don’t want to follow someone else’s rules for being. We don’t want to be fit into some box of understanding that isn’t our own.
When you think about it that way, when you think about what it is you misunderstand about a person when you place them in a box, when you think about the disservice it does, are you really willing to keep doing it?
So we have to resist the box—resist assigning people to a box of our own understanding. Let’s dismiss our labels. Let’s allow people their layers.