American rapper and activist Prince Ea’s spoken-word piece “I Am NOT Black, You Are NOT White” is a gorgeous work of art with a powerful message: We are not our labels. We are not the terms that society assigns us. Who we truly are is deeper than how we look.
This sounds like the remedy for what ails us in terms of racism, and apparently millions agree, based on the high number of views, “likes” and comments the video has garnered on social media. But this message is not the answer, and it sets progress back decades for the following reasons:
It ignores the way human beings actually work. In the past 15 years, brain science and evolutionary biology have taught us that labels are how the human brain works. We evolved to quickly categorize other human beings based on limited visual information — outside of our conscious awareness in about .2 seconds using a part of our brain that’s millions of years old. For most of our 150,000-year history as a species, this helped us identify friends and foes, assess real threats to our lives and determine how to interact with others. Our brain still does this all day every day, and it doesn’t care that we now interact with more human diversity — and more humans — than we ever have.
It promotes suppression and shame.When good people (especially good White people) notice their brains doing what human brains do — categorizing and pre-judging people based on limited information — they typically deny or suppress that information or feel shame. Cognitively, neither suppression nor shame encourages change or growth, and both can make those tendencies even stronger. This is why well-intended people often say they don’t “see” race, which is empirically untrue based on what we now know about the brain.
It promotes binary thinking. The notion that we aren’t our labels — that we’re more than that — is well intended, but it creates a false choice between having a label and being a unique and universal “person” without labels. Not having labels is impossible because of how our brains work and how humans socialize each other, and we don’t have to choose. We are precious, unique individuals — and labels. Every person possesses multiple labels and identities, whether we own them or not.
It ignores the real impact of “society” on our identities. There is no such thing as “society” outside of people. We are society, creating it every day with our thoughts, words, and actions – mostly outside of our conscious awareness. The color, shape, size, and traits of our physical body profoundly impact how others perceive us, then behave towards us, consciously and unconsciously. We internalize those messages (positive and negative) and they become an integral part of how we experience ourselves and how we behave. Because I inhabit a light skinned body, I’ve received lifelong unearned privileges like others’ automatic high expectations for me, and a lack of questioning or pushback for entering into particular spaces or conversations. Because I inhabit a female body, I’ve experienced lifelong unfair disadvantages like not being heard or taken seriously, being seen as “intimidating” once I speak (and show my intelligence), and being a target of male assault. All these experiences have shaped my beliefs, expectations, biases, and behavior – as they do for all human beings.
It tells us nothing new. If the belief that labels are incomplete or insignificant were all we needed to end racism or bigotry, it would have ground to a halt with Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” in 1991, or any other number of songs, movies, trainings, and articles promoting the “why can’t we all just get along” approach to race relations. But most of us haven’t really tried to answer that critical “why” question. The answer is that good intentions aren’t enough, and getting along with others isn’t simple because we are an unusually social species with ancient brains whose unconscious processes dictate our actions more than we care to admit. These processes intensify when we experience stress and chaos, and the world we’ve created serves up generous helpings of stress, fear and chaos.
It negates the targeted changes advocated by critical social movements. Lifting everyone up has broad benefit, but does nothing to eliminate the real, meaningful disparities in different groups’ economic, political, and social realities. As Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson eloquently put it, “there’s something unique about the trauma that Black people have experienced in this country.” Shouting “all lives matter” or creating equity starting today doesn’t address a problem involving hundreds of years and millions of biased human brains.
“No labels” isn’t the solution because the labels aren’t the problem. The problem is the meaning we collectively assign to those labels, the actions we take as a result of those labels, and their effects on the material reality of people’s lives. It’s noteworthy that Prince Ea is an young Black male calling for an end to labels – because his labels put him at far greater risk than any White person. This is why we don’t hear White people call publically for an end to labels (unless it’s a defensive response to a person of color): humans evolved to be much more aware of what endangers us than what benefits us.
Here are 7 solutions to the real problem: Learn more about how the human brain works, how humans are socialized, and how this impacts our behavior. Take one or more of the Implicit Association Tests to identify your own unconscious biases. Be curious and compassionate with yourself, not resistant and feeling shame. Identify, and own your labels – appreciate how they’ve served you and gotten in your way. Celebrate that you are your labels and also a precious, unique human being! Begin to practice one of the research-proven ways to reduce the negative effects of your unconscious biases. Finally, challenge simplistic thinking – just because we want solutions to be as simple as “no more labels” doesn’t mean they work.