Yesterday a friend shared with me a video clip of an interview Oprah Winfrey did with an actress by the name of Raven-Symone appeared on The Cosby Show as Olivia Kendall when she was just 4 years old! The interview she did with Oprah will undoubtedly spark a lot of conversation.
Because in the interview Raven said she is not someone who uses labels like “African-American” or “Gay/Lesbian” to describe herself – even though she is in love with a woman.
In a country where labels are held in high esteem, this may seem like the ultimate heresy to some. Instead of using African-American or Gay to describe herself, Raven explained, she simply prefers the term American.
Raven’s comments sparked a couple of reactions within me.
My initial reaction was that I was glad 28-year old has been a part of a generation that largely sees labels as superficial. Her Millennial Generation has seen the first African-American president and witnessed the spread of same-gender marriage rights to 30 of the 50 states in the United States! Attitudinal and legal barriers are falling left and right and that makes it more possible to assert the belief that we are all basically the same. This makes me happy.
The other part of me was a little miffed by Raven’s remarks. Previous generations (including my own X Generation) did not have the luxury of living in a label-free world. As I child, I remember growing up in a world where it was assumed a person of color might NEVER be President of the United States. I also lived in a world where people who labeled themselves gay or lesbian could be denied housing, employment, and the right to wed the person whom you loved.
Labels, in other words, meant something. But not necessarily in the way Raven might think. Let me use my own experience as an example of what I mean.
When I was going through my own coming out process in the early 1990s, I heard some around me say I shouldn’t refer to myself as a gay man. This included people who shared my same-gender orientation. The folks who were saying this were NOT saying it as a way of asserting equality with heterosexuals, however. No, they were avoiding labels as a means to escape the rampant discrimination that existed all them.
As a white, middle class male – I could instantly be “equal” (at least to other privileged white, middle class males): all I had to do was to pretend I was emotionally drawn to people of the opposite gender. Distancing oneself from a label back then was a way of maintaining privilege.
An essential part of my personal development was claiming a label, and saying, “Even though the majority of those around me consider those who are gay to be inferior or sick – I do not! I am a gay man who is an emotionally, spiritually, and physically healthy member of society.” Had I not claimed a label, I would have been more likely to fall prey to low self-esteem.
So when Raven casually distances herself from a label like gay or lesbian, it makes me feel as if a part of my – a part of OUR – collective development as individuals and as Americans has been made invisible. That is the part of me that’s miffed.
What this all boils down to, I suppose, is that each generation uses the language that best reflects its experience. Those who belong to Generation X, the Baby Boom Generation, and the Greatest Generation may continue to hold on to labels which helped them process the world in which they grew up. Those who belong to the Millennial Generation will probably be less likely to use labels because they grew up in a world that was much further along in the march toward equality.
Having said all of that, I will end by noting something that might seem a bit contradictory about myself. Having done a big chunk of my work on identity matters, I have reached the point in life where I have dropped most of the labels others have associated with me and now cling to only one label.
And what label is that? Is it “Gay”, or “Norwegian-American”, or “German-American”, or Progressive, or Christian, or some other label?
No. It’s none of these. In fact, I’ve gone one step further than Raven and largely dropped American as a word I use to identify myself.
The one label I hold onto with all my strength is the label “beloved child of God”. It is a label that I use with everyone I meet as well. Everyone. I can then tack on further descriptors (i.e. “beloved Child of God who is same-gender oriented”, “beloved Child of God who is a follower of Jesus”, “beloved Child of God who lives in the United States”, etc.) if it helps spur compassion, growth, or further identification with the person with whom I am speaking.
Today I would encourage you to think about the role labels have played/continue to play in your life. I would welcome you to share your thoughts as well.
See you next time.