Boxes and Labels

Social ideas pertaining to identity and self-definition are constantly changing. Gender, class, religion, age and ethnicity are said to form the core of one’s personality… or, rather, how we can concisely define ourselves when we do not have enough time to explain what our personal views, experiences and ideas might be, and, likewise, how others can place us into easy boxes when they are too lazy or strapped for time to explore the deeper intricacies of who we are. The nature of human identity is arguably one of the most complex and fluid concepts that social scientists (among others) are forced to grapple with constantly; limiting the definition of one’s qualities and traits to ethnic categories on application forms is both futile and regressive; the ‘ethnicity’ section of such forms is an insult to people’s individualities, and their individual assets. “The times”, as Bob Dylan put it, “they are a-changin’”, and it now feels like the right time to open up an extensive debate about the relevance of ethnic labelling in the modern world.

I must admit, however, that I am no stranger to the intrinsic human urge to feel like I belong to a group, (or, to several). I am a member of numerous friendship groups and online ‘fandoms’, as well as worldwide communities – from the global Marvel Comics fandom to the nearly 2-billion-strong international Muslim community. Although I belong to these various groups, I still see myself as a unique individual; my personality cannot fully be captured by simple strings of words, or by lazy labels like “Muslim”, “teenager” or “Bengali”, let alone by an inane blanket label like “black”, “white”, or “brown”.

Human conversational tendencies are a peculiar thing, especially in first-time conversations, and those centred on ‘small talk’ (which is an intrinsically detestable thing, if you ask me). In such situations, people tend to drift towards discussing trivial matters like the weather, or Trumpian politics, or ethnicity. Revealing one’s ethnicity, from my experience, tends to give rise to responses of fascination, bewilderment, or downright confusion.

 

Really? You’re Bengali? Oh, so you’re basically Indian, right?”

“No way! I thought you were Moroccan. You’re too pretty to be a Bengali”

“Oh, wow. So do you eat rice and curry everyday?”

“Will you have to get an arranged marriage?”

 

The obsession with ethnicity seems strange when compared to other factors such as social class. Adults nowadays are unlikely to bring up age or social class as a topic of initial conversation (so as to instantly assign labels and stereotypes to people they barely even know) and yet the question of ethnicity somehow retains its place at the tips of our tongues. Similarly, although young people are unlikely to include their social class or political beliefs in short social media biographies, they are willing to embellish said ‘bios’ with flag Emojis and statements of ethnic pride. This is, by no means, a bad thing, however placing excessive importance on the differences between ethnic groups, as opposed to the innumerable similarities we share with every other human being, places pressure on people to perceive members of other groups as strange, or at least, distant from them. It is this very concept that provides the perfect breeding ground for racism, as well as ideas surrounding ethnic superiority and inferiority.

Nobody here in London can claim to be an authentic, uncontaminated representative of a singular race. In fact, nobody in the world can make this claim. Several large-scale genealogy experiments and projects have proven, time and time again, that humans have been migrating from place to place for millennia- since we first came about. Cultural heritage, like race, is an illusory concept.

Now, with the impacts of immigration and globalisation, many cities- London being an archetypal example- are cultural melting pots, and the lines that separate distinctive lifestyles and cultures are gradually being blurred. Even my grandmother, who epitomises ‘Bengali culture’ with her myriads of superstitions and customs, enjoys having the occasional Chinese take-away for dinner, and wears Norwegian slippers around her house. Second and third-generation immigrants find it even more difficult to adhere to the de facto laws of their ‘inherited’ cultures: we are exposed to different ideas, lifestyles, cuisines, philosophical perspectives, and clothing styles on a daily basis. We are able to actively pick and choose what we like and dislike; we are, for the most part, free to shape our own identities.

Despite this, there are examples of subsections of the wider London community that are, arguably, secluded, alienated, and according to some (such as certain highly enlightened Daily Mail journalists), not ‘integrated’ into wider society. The 2011 census showed the Bangladeshi and Pakistani community is mostly concentrated in East London, Arabs have established their ground in parts of the North Western region, the majority of Chinese Londoners reside in Southwark, and so on. It seems that people are eager to cling onto others who resemble themselves, but in doing so, they only scratch the surface of potential points of similarity, focusing on skin colour, recent ancestral linkages, and other artificial similarities, as opposed to overlaps in terms of, say, preferences. The amassment of certain groups in certain areas has been proliferated by relative minorities in those regions being made to feel like outsiders, and thus the phenomenon of ‘White Flight’ comes into play. Unfortunately, the issue is only sustained by other groups moving away from areas with predominantly homogeneous populations. The only way to break this chain is to force ethnic dissimilarities to become less significant, both to ethnic majorities in certain regions, and their minority counterparts.

Due to harmful stereotypes about race and ethnicity, people of colour here in Europe frequently experience ‘microaggressive’ forms of discriminatory behavior. People who are visibly of European descent are treated with extra attention and politeness, whilst individuals of colour are often made to be on the receiving end of acute impatience, and, at times, even aggressive behaviour; this can be observed almost everywhere, from planes to post offices, and it is deeply regrettable that this sort of prejudicial behavior is perpetuated by members of ethnic minorities themselves. Similarly, in certain Arabian countries, South Asians are seen and treated as inferior. Racial hierarchies are, unfortunately, still ubiquitous in the modern world. In some places, race-based slavery somehow continues to exist: countries like Libya and Saudi Arabia are a hundred steps behind when it comes to diminishing the relevance of ethnicity.

Ultimately, it is important to acknowledge that ethnicity is a mere social construct; although it is socially ‘real’, it is not biologically so, and, like all forms of societal categorization, placing consequential importance on ethnicity renders it a powerful force of division and discrimination. Evolutionary biologists (such as the renowned ‘celebrity atheist’ Richard Dawkins) argue that ethnicity might simply be a remnant of instinctive human tribalism: we feel the urge to behave altruistically towards our immediate family, as well as our neighbours, and people we physically resemble, but only when we all surrender to the truth of humanity being a singular species, without any actual morphological sub-species, will we ever be able to truly become ‘global citizens’.

“Nationalism,” Albert Einstein once said, “is a disease”. Excessive pride in one’s ethnic identity (or, in the same vein, the unbridled loathing, collectivising, and misunderstanding of other groups) is a huge barrier to achieving global peace and unity. This widespread obsession with ethnicity has led to, and still leads to, stereotyping, discrimination, and even genocides (Nazi Germany and the Bosnian Wars being prime examples of this). It is disturbing to think that miniscule, constructed differences such as religion, dialect, and skin colour can lead to such divisiveness and animosity, but the fact of the matter is, ethnicity is of such profound importance to our species solely because we allow it to be.

Although I will always be fascinated by my ancestral origins, my mother’s mother tongue, and the exquisite practices I have always enjoyed, I do not want to be known as ‘the Bengali girl’, nor do I want to be the token brown girl at my future workplace. I want people to see me for who I am, and not through a distorted lens of misunderstandings, preconceptions, and the popular sin of wanting to group people together, making them sacrifice their individuality for an amorphous, ambiguous collective identity based on the pontificated truths of ethnicity. Sure, my family is originally from Bangladesh: I have brown skin and dark hair, I eat curry regularly, and I (am forced to) attend countless extravagant family parties… but the next time I am asked about where I am ‘from’, whether on a form or in a fleeting ‘small talk’ conversation, I might just tick the box next to

prefer not to say’.


Sadia Ahmed, 2017

The Self, the Other, and the Other within the Self

Throughout history, human beings have always been keen on the idea of labelling: tribalism, drawing invisible lines on maps as a demarcation of national territory, racism, classism, and other forms of artificial separation all stem from humanity’s obsession to be able to delineate a Self (a group that is portrayed and perceived as desirable and paradigmatic) and an Other (a group that is less desirable, and more deserving of punishment, or at least reform, in our eyes). Satan, criminals, psychopaths and terrorists are the traditional and universal Others in our world, however, often our rigid definitions of this notion tend to boil down to a matter of perspective.

Indeed, a good example of this is how, during the Nazi regime in Germany in the early 20th Century, numerous Germans perceived Adolf Hitler as a strong and unifying force; he promised economic revival and stability, an idea that was especially attractive to the thousands of starving innocent people he promised to liberate. Here in England, however, he was (and is) considered the epitome of evil- a merciless politician with questionable morals. Likewise, today (though not yet to the same degree) it has become acceptable to label individuals like Donald Trump and Hassan Rouhani of Iran as significant ‘Others’ to Western liberal values, but, despite the binary messages that many authors and journalists are keen to promulgate, every villain has a story, and every hero has a secret.

Take Barack Obama for instance. Commonly hailed as one of the most charismatic and trustworthy American politicians ever to have served in office, it is easy for us to dismiss his ethically controversial actions (notably, his refusal to end American military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan) but it seems to be less easy for us to dismiss Trump’s sarcastic Tweets directed towards ‘Fake News’ media outlets. Essentially, it is clear that ideas of Otherness can prove infectious, especially when they conform to (and, indeed, help to form) widespread popular narratives.

Our stubborn obsession with rigidly defining Otherness is as visible in the media as it is in politics. This is especially evident in the portrayal of villains in Disney movies: it is clear whom we, the audience, are meant to sympathise with, and whom we are expected to dislike, or detest, even.

Villains, whether fictional or real, are just as sentient as we are, and they are capable of sharing similar emotions, hopes, dreams and fears. My argument is not that we should completely excuse their misdemeanours, but that everybody deserves to be empathised with. Instead of labelling Brexit supporters (another example of Others in modern society) as racists or British children who have been radicalised by Islamic militant groups as scum who do not deserve to live, we must open up a dialogue, looking at things as a matter of ‘We’ rather than one of ‘Them vs. Us’. Ad hominem in debates does nothing to solidify arguments, but attempting to empathise, on the other hand, allows intervention. We should learn to challenge others’ views and actions without attempting to present ourselves on moral high horses.

Maleficient, the villain of Sleeping Beauty, was hurt when she was excluded from Aurora’s christening. Mother Gothel from Tangled just wanted to be young forever (don’t we all?). The Evil Queen from Snow White was jealous of Snow White’s beauty, and insecure about her own. Scar was resentful of Simba’s taking his place as the next heir to the throne. Every defining feature that a human creator has ever assigned to a fictional villain- is just a manifestation of humanity’s worst qualities. We are all made of light and darkness, and the darkness that hides within all of us makes us capable of feeling jealousy, resentment, desire and even ‘Satanic’ pride.

According to ‘biological historian’ Dr. Yuval Harari, “tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin colour, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group”. He argues that ‘Otherness’ is an example of evolutionary residue; it was previously critical to our survival – such as when we shared the planet with our Neanderthal cousins, who, being an early form of Other, were “too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate”.

Archetypal villains are not just villains, and, similarly, the heroic protagonists of the stories we have written since the dawn of time are not just heroes. Everything is a matter of perspective, and, as Nietzsche put it, “morality is just a fiction”. We are all social actors, obsessed with convincing ourselves that we are good people. Why are we good people? We are good because we can differentiate between ourselves and our Others. In this repeated practice of attempting to walk forever atop a moral high ground, we forget where our real Other lies: it lies within the Self, in that abyss of confusion we all hold within us. We are, essentially, complete strangers to ourselves, unsure of who we truly are, where we are going, whether we are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people, why we think and feel the way we do, and, of course, why we are even here in the first place…

and we cannot help but project this terrifying notion onto other people.


Sadia Ahmed, 2017