The Issue in Labeling Things
by Jasmine Chen
Growing up in America, I feel privileged to be surrounded by a diverse community of people of all colors and backgrounds; this is why America is so special, because it is the land of dreams as well as a giant melting pot. But even though this unique aspect is something to be proud of, it is undeniable that deeply rooted issues in our society concurrently haunt our community. Putting labels of identity on everything—from the subtle to the obvious ways in which we differentiate ourselves—set ups the opportunity for self-acceptance and pride as well as prejudice and discrimination. Whether or not we are always aware of it, we might subconsciously avoid becoming friends with a person once we become aware of their disability. One might openly point out or mock an Asian person’s stereotypical slanted eyes. Racial issues find their way into the media spotlight, such as the most recent controversial Eric Garner and Peter Liang cases. Even though illness in general is the least spotlighted, there are so many topics that circulate in both the global and American discourse in regards to race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, poverty, and more.
Once upon a time, I sent a college essay to my friend to look over, and he sent back a comment mentioning my “disease.” My immediate reaction was to be defensive, and I told him it wasn’t a disease. Technically speaking though, it was. I just hated the way the word disease sounded, as if I were a deteriorating human being rotting away slowly and fraying at the edges. Had it not been for convenience and practical purposes, I was even tempted to avoid terms like “chronic illness” or “disability” altogether in reference to myself, as that appeared to be too much of a perfunctory summary of one’s identity. Even now I prefer to refer to it as a chronic condition. Why do I react this way? Some of it may be a self-imposed fear of being judged, but psychologically speaking, we learn to fear often from our experiences. Growing up, many of my peers would write letters to me when I was homeschooled, assuming I was dying in the hospital and saying things like “It was nice knowing you.” Or during prom weekend, I caught wind of my group discussing the possibility of leaving me out to dry from beach plans because they didn’t want to be responsible for me if anything happened; all this without them even once asking me or understanding exactly what it was that I had. These situations of an unwillingness to learn about or accept me occurred again and again over the course of my childhood and into my adulthood, causing a deeply imbedded anxiety that I’ve only recently begun to unwind. And that is the issue with labels: not the fact that a person is simply deemed “handicapped,” referred to as “the black guy,” or ridiculed for having small eyes, but that we naturally form harmful stereotypes that we associate with these terms.
Another example I can share is a college experience where I encountered a strangely blunt reference to my ethnicity. My friend and I met a Brazilian student at one of his barbecues, and because of the language barrier and our broken communication, we often resorted to motioning with our hands. I was completely caught off guard when he proceeded to pull at the corners of his eyes, smiling as he did so and then pointing at mine. My initial surprise turned next to feeling offended, and I tried to tell him that here in the States, that behavior wasn’t acceptable. However, he was confused and didn’t understand why I was offended, as he seemed to mean it as a compliment just as he did in innocuously touching my hair. Even after our second interaction—where I again tried to confront him about a Facebook photo of his friend wearing a Vietnamese rice hat, pulling at the corners of his eyes, and writing jokingly in Portuguese that he was obviously the best-looking person in Chinatown—he didn’t realize that these actions were racist.
My friend explained to me afterward that from her study abroad in South America, she learned that the cultures there have different perspectives. In the States, a simple act like a reference to one’s eyes is a sensitive matter and instantly alerts us to negative insinuations of our race: we have been taught to be offended when someone comments on an Asian’s small eyes, but that is because looking back at our history, the instigator manipulates it into a flaw. In general, Asians do have smaller eyes—in fact, the statistic between monolids and double eyelids is split 50/50. In South America, my friend was referred to as “the black one” because of her darker skin tone, and she didn’t think anything of it because the Chileans used the term in a purely neutral manner of reference.
Labels can have more severe consequences when violence and racism are involved. In the past few years, the NYPD and other police have been embroiled in public outrage with multiple incidents of police brutality and use of excessive force, one of the most well known of which caused the death of Eric Garner. Video evidence proves that Eric Garner repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe while a white police officer held him in a chokehold, completely ignoring Garner’s pleas until it was too late. The police officer implicated in this incident, Daniel Pantaleo, was not indicted despite the medical examiner's ruling as a homicide. NYPD officials claimed that a chokehold was not used, but that a combination of heart disease, obesity, and asthma caused Garner’s tragedy. Fast forward to February 2016, where we see Peter Liang, an Asian American officer, indicted for up to 15 years in prison for accidentally killing a man in the dark while on patrol duty. It has been confirmed that Mr. Liang was not well trained and was ill-prepared for his job, and as it was dark and he never even saw the other man, prejudice played no part.
A New York Times article quoted Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, saying that the conviction would have “a chilling effect on police officers across the city because it criminalizes a tragic accident.” The Asian American community is protesting that Peter Liang is a scapegoat being used to placate communities that are out for blood because of the escalating number of African Americans killed unjustly by white officers.
Let’s look at the facts side by side: even if Eric Garner’s case was considered an accident, then why was Pantaleo free of consequences while Peter Liang—also involved in an accident, though it was devoid of race in the equation—indicted? I am not denying that Liang made a mistake and a great tragedy occurred because of his irresponsibility. But if his actions are going to be condemned by the government, then they need to be in proportion to Pantaleo’s consequences. There is no doubt in my mind that Peter Liang’s extreme punishment was offered as a sacrifice because of his race to appease the people: this is not justice. Perhaps this video of activist Jess Fong conveys a clearer message:
These experiences led me to question whether or not the underlying issue is in labeling people under categories, compartmentalizing them into identities that seem to aim at separating “them” from “us” and creating an “Other” as if a specific minority or group were not truly American. The simple fact is that there is nothing wrong with being disabled, having smaller eyes, or darker skin, unless we ourselves attach depreciating connotations to those identities or characteristics. Until a day where we are truly appreciative of all aspects of each other’s ipseity, from the color of our skin to our birthmarks and our scars, conversations revolving around controversy and protests will continue spiraling in circles, and true justice will never be served. The question is, will we ever be audacious enough to progress out of ignorant and spiteful bias towards others and ourselves? Will equality truly ever exist? Only time will tell.