NO LABELS: It’s the What’s-Inside-Stuff that Counts!
A few weeks ago my 20-year-old daughter called to say she was bringing a friend by the house. Terence is a guy she works with at American Eagle Outfitters, and she had mentioned him to me many times in general conversation. From her description, I knew him to have a green Mohawk, a killer sense of humor, and a heart of gold. I couldn’t wait to meet him and was happy she planned to bring him by.
What she never said is that Terence also happens to be black. And gay. It just never occurred to her to mention it.
Isn’t that fantastic?
She walked into the house with Terence who does, indeed, sport a Mohawk the color of lime Jell-O. That he is black was apparent to me because I’m not blind, and his gayness is something he neither hides nor flaunts, but my gaydar pinged and was right on the money. It isn’t surprising that my daughter did not label him as black or gay, in part because those labels are not the reason he is her friend (see above: sense of humor, heart of gold), and in part because Terence is a 20-something kid completely comfortable in his own skin. He wears those labels the way he wears his Mohawk: Here I am. This is me. Pleased to meet you. Let’s talk and laugh together for a few minutes, shall we?
Adorable and irresistible.
This encounter got me thinking about the way we describe someone to others. We pluck out those characteristics we personally consider the strongest. Please consider:
The words we choose to describe someone to others
says as much about us as it does about the person being described.
When friends describe me I hope they say something along the lines of, “She’s funny and kindhearted,” which I sincerely hope is true, as opposed to, “She’s an old white bagger who doesn’t quite fit into a pair of jeans the way she used to, IF ya know what I mean,” which is absolutely the Naked Truth. (And damn menopause for readjusting my hormones, redistributing my fat cells, and caving to the demands of gravity—all without so much as a, “By your leave, madam.”)
The thing is, in today’s social climate, the color of a person’s skin and/or their sexual orientation is often the first thing we are told about them. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that. I mean, I AM an old white bagger whose jean seams are challenged daily by the, er, redistribution of wealth, so to speak. That’s certainly the Naked Truth. You aren’t lying if you describe me that way. And Terence is black and gay. Not a lie. But when it comes to describing us, Terence and me, really describing us, are those the most important things someone should know?
Certainly circumstances make a difference. If I was picking Terence up at the airport and had never seen him, it is likely my daughter would have said, “He’s a cute black guy with a way-cool green Mohawk.” Wait. Bad example. The green Mohawk would be enough to pick him out in a crowd. Let’s say you were picking me up from the airport. What would you need to know? Would “wild-eyed white woman with wacky hair and no sense of direction” be enough for you? Would you need more? She’s the one knocking small children to the ground on her mad dash to the bathroom.
People being people, we’ll always notice our differences. And sometimes that’s important for identification purposes. But no matter the extent of our differences, when it comes to describing who we are, most of the time it’s the other stuff, the heart stuff, the what’s-inside-us-stuff, that are the most important things for others to know.
Those of you who read and comment here at Writing in the Buff, for instance—most of you I’ve never met personally. Your skin color/sexual orientation is something I’ve assumed based on the information you choose to share. It is only by your comments, from what you’ve shown of yourselves, that I know something about you. Some of you are like old friends, even though we’ve never met in person or have met only briefly. When I think of you or tell others about you, the usual social labels don’t come into play because my only point of reference is that you are considerate, discerning, intelligent, and often funny as hell. Those are the things that matter to me, more than your skin color or sexual orientation ever could.
Well, unless you ask me to pick you up at the airport—then, Buttercup, I’ll need to know how to identify you in a crowd. But I bet you’ll be easy to spot, because I already know . . . you’re a bunch of good eggs! 🙂
What are the things you want to know about people before you meet them? What are the first words you use to describe others—physical characteristics or personality traits? How do you hope others describe you? And how do you feel about labels—yes or no?
See you next week for more of the Naked Truth.
Happy Wednesday, y’all!
P.S. Special thanks to Terence for letting me post his photo and for giving a thumbs-up to this post in which he figures so prominently. Also, it must be said that not everyone could pull off a green Mohawk, but Terence does it with style. 🙂