Resist the Box

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.


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2 responses to “Resist the Box”

  1. Kip DeForest

    Oh, Rosie! This is a wonderful post! You have stated it so well… We all know about those boxes and we all have a tendency to place people in them – instead of just the toys, the books, the photos, the letters.

    I was at my husband’s high school class reunion last weekend and I was thinking a lot about this very tendency. Noting how people had changed over the many years, (I was in the class right behind this one, so I knew many of these folks)I was surprised many times! And also – in some cases, not surprised! The “cool” people and some of the “wanna be” people have all kind of mellowed. And, because nature – and experience – changes us as we age, we all seem so much wiser! But we still tend to place people in those boxes!

    I was talking with one woman and made a brief reference to Lady Gaga. And she immediately said, “Ugh!”. Something I guess we could expect from someone in the older generation, right? Look at Lady Gaga and her wild get-ups and immediately think, “Ugh!” But… take a moment to really listen to her lyrics, and think about her messages. And then, maybe… think, “Oh wait! She’s talking about people and our differences and accepting each person for who they are. Not so bad, maybe?”

    It’s so hard to resist those boxes, isn’t it? And yet, so worthwhile when we can!

  2. Deborah

    My favorite pull-quote from this post:

    “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.”

    This is the essence of profiling and, whatever our political stance on the use of it by the FBI, police departments, airport security and the like, we need to check in with ourselves to see how often we casually profile others we encounter in our day-to-day lives; you describe it so well above.

    Mark Twain once said that it’s important to take from a situation only the lesson that applies. As an example he noted that a cat who sat on a hot stove wouldn’t sit on a hot stove again . . . but wouldn’t sit on a cold one, either. The same is true for people; you can’t tell just by looking at them what’s cooking inside.

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