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Side by Side: Labels

One of the first social rules I learned in kindergarten was how hurtful it was to call people names. The second rule was that people will eventually tease you.
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Guest Post from Ganel-Lyn and Tamu Smith:

Ganel-Lyn Condie

One of the first social rules I learned in kindergarten was how hurtful it was to call people names. The second rule was that people will eventually tease you. Apparently, Don Imus’ childhood lessons differed from mine. He must have learned that name calling generates attention. For years he was rewarded as countless people tuned in to hear his signature shock commentary. Then in April of 2007 his name calling of the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team was so offensive he was fired. That television moment launched a fresh debate in our country about how name calling really can hurt. I love open debates because they stretch us when we catch ourselves getting too comfortable. It is easy to ‘fall asleep’ and become accustomed to things in our relationships, communities, and world. Then along comes a public mess up and we all wake up! I had to ask myself what I would have said on air that morning when Imus started throwing out racial and sexual slurs. Would I have had a perfect comeback to forcefully and effectively stop the train on its tracks or would I have remained silent?

Name calling may seem too simplistic a term for what Imus did; but referring to it that way makes it more relevant to my life. I may never find myself on a national cable show (it is a secret dream) but I am out with my friends or in meetings all the time. It happens in those forums regularly. Women can be so cutting with reckless labels. Labeling is just the ‘grown up’ version of name calling. We do it when we assess and form opinions about someone. You hear those side comments about plastic surgery, moms going back to work, or staying home and having yet another baby. We decide we know someone based on their outfit, how clean their house is, or what church they attend. Imus didn’t know those intelligent beautiful women so his off handed statements were heartless. Then again, we often prevent our hearts from really getting to know the people we casually critique.

Speaking up to say something positive can be difficult when everyone in the group is gossiping and secretly harassing. I remember as a teenage girl staying quiet instead of saying, “That isn’t what I think about her.” As a thirty-six-year old mother it can be just as difficult to consciously spit out a counter response; a comment that gives the person of topic the benefit of the doubt. Have you been lucky enough to hear someone bravely do just that? They speak up and it changes the mood completely. The awkward feeling of shame eventually passes from the gathering, then a positive feeling enters the discussion.

What if we don’t take a stand? It may not reach a national television audience or a basketball team, but what we say changes what people think and feel. Think about the morning after a girl’s night discussion when you run into that soccer mom who has fresh gossip-shaped-knife wounds in her back. Do you greet her with a smile or with the assumption that you already know who she is? You tell yourself you couldn’t possibly have anything in common with her. Avoiding eye contact, you skip to the next aisle over. Maybe it affects who we become when we walk right past the toothbrushes and Twinkies and away from a potentially great friendship with that woman who is known solely based on a label.

Tamu Smith

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When the topic of how women place labels on one another came up, I thought I had it in the bag, because it was not an issue that I struggled with personally. It was a subject that I was interested in, because I didn’t understand why people would try to define someone else. I feel that I am friendly with everyone, and for the most part, I accept people for who they are. I, like most of the nation, was appalled when Don Imus referred to the Rutgers basketball players as “Nappy Headed Ho’s.” Yet again, I separated myself from such madness, and while I spoke out against his comments, I couldn’t understand how Imus could feel comfortable making such a comment about a group of women he didn’t know.

The more I thought about labels and how we place them on other women as well as on ourselves, the more I realized that I was also a part of the problem. I recognized several instances where the labels that I’d placed on women might have stunted the growth of potential relationships, but also my personal growth.

I’ve tried to justify my labeling because it was done in what I thought was a positive manner. For example, I placed some of my friends in the O.C.D. clean category - which I don’t see as negative. I also have categories for the types of friends I have (creative, pretty, fun, etc.). I felt justified in creating these categories so that I could know what type of relationship we would have. Key words: “type of relationship.” I was placing a label on my friends and not allowing them to shift into another category.

I have a younger sister who is in her mid-twenties. Due to choices that she has made in her life, I had categorized her as being unreliable, immature, and irresponsible, and I had treated her accordingly. A few months ago, a situation was created which caused a positive shift in my sister’s life. Instead of my attitude shifting as well, it was, “I will just wait to see if her change is real.” In labeling my younger sister, I’ve also labeled myself as “her rescuer.” I was the one who offered her advice on how to do things to create a more stable life, a better life. The problem with my advice was that it was unsolicited. She was fine, or seemed fine, with things in her life. There were times that she needed me to be her sister. I couldn’t be that person for her because I was too busy trying to fix problems that she didn’t realize she had, and if she did realize she had them, they didn’t seem to bother her. Until a few weeks ago, I can’t remember the last time I shared a laugh with her.

This article has stretched me in ways I didn’t think I needed to stretch - creating an opportunity for me to restructure my “type of relationship” with my sister. When I dropped the label, and the stigma that came with it, I allowed my sister to be who she was at that moment and it created a closeness and freedom that the labeling prevented.

It is my responsibility to evaluate and reevaluate my relationships so that I’m not holding people captive by the labels I’ve placed on them. This creates freedom for me and those around me to really enjoy one another’s company without the fear of being judged.

—Ganel-Lyn and Tamu Smith

Reprinted fromWasatch Woman Magazine, July/Aug 2007


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