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Prejudice, Nuance, and Labeling

[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]

When I was very young and my brain half-formed and my skin so thin it was nearly transparent, I thought it apt to label not only things but people. I labeled my folders and notebooks, organizing each subject by color. Blue was science, green social studies, yellow math, red reading, orange spelling, etc. We teach and encourage our children to name and label items around them because that's how we learn. That's how we begin to understand the world and our place in it.

Labels become problematic though, when they start becoming applied to people. A folder is a folder is a folder. A human is not just a mother or accountant or dancer or female or white or brown. One day on a bus ride home, I was talking to a girl a grade above me, trying to find the right labels for people we both knew. "So and so is a jock," I said, "and so and so is a nerd. But what are you?" Cringey, right? Granted, I was maybe 11 years old and my mushy frontal lobe was obviously confused. My friend looked me and just said, "I'm a person." I sunk into the faux leather bus seat to chew on what she told me. I knew my friend well, and she was right, she wasn't just a math wiz or an artist or a daughter or a sibling.

What I was probably trying to do, when asking my friend "what she was," was trying to figure out what or who I could be, too. This is a normal part of the maturation process, but if my friend hadn't said, "I'm a person" and instead chosen to label herself, I would have continued trying to place each new person I encountered into a neatly labeled box. Some people never outgrow or unlearn this practice, and the propensity to label people shows up everywhere. Identity politics encourages us to label each other by race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Knowing that someone is gay, for instance, can make us assume sundry things about them that may or may not be true. We label each other by our occupations, categorize each other by where we live or how much money we make, and draw assumptions based on hobbies, music preferences, athletic ability, and appearance. Whether or not we like it, we label each other all the time, which is only one reason why prejudices, racism, sexism, and every other "ism" continue to exist with such strength and tenacity. We all be many things, and though this seems obvious, we often forget it.

A few weeks ago, a friend introduced me to the Johari Window Model, which was created by Joseph Luften and Harry Ingham as a hueristic self-help model. The Johari Window is used to help people better understand themselves and their communication with others. An image of the model is below.

An explanation of each quadrant is as follows.

1. Open Space: Known to you – Known to others

This quadrant encompasses the behavior that is known by you and also seen and acknowledged by others. These behaviors can be communicated about, though it may not always be comfortable.

2. Blind Spot: Unknown to yourself – Known to others

The Blind Spot can be very difficult to manage, because others can see something that you don’t. For example, you might work more slowly than your colleagues but be unaware of it although everyone else can see it. The blind spot requires others to communicate with you in open and loving ways in order for you to see your behaviors and change them.

3. Hidden Area: Known to yourself – Unknown to others

The Hidden Area allows people to keep certain information to themselves and not share it with others. This could include hobbies, beliefs, family history, or a host of other things. Sometimes, you might feel comfortable revealing the hidden self to others, shifting the hidden subject to the open space.

4. Unknown Area: Unknown to yourself – Unknown to others

The fourth quadrant is my favorite because nobody knows it exists. Communication cannot occur about the unknown area, and if you are introspective and thoughtful, you may be able to shift the unknown to the hidden. But, there will always be an infinite unknown.

As I read more about the Johari Model, I thought about how many blind spots I probably have, and how those blinds spots may or may not be destructive to myself or to others. I thought about the hidden parts of myself that only I know, the thoughts or experiences or beliefs I hold close, only communicating to another after a strong bond of trust is formed. I thought about the unknown self, how interesting or broken or joyful she might be. It is a privilege to think so deeply about such things. It is a privilege too, to understand the nuance of the self and extend that understanding of nuance to everyone else.

We are living at a critical moment in history, when nuance matters. It is a simple and easy thing to believe what others believe or to repeat words we hear others say. It is a simple and easy thing to categorize those around us, to try to neatly label their experiences and to try to project our own experiences and beliefs onto theirs. I urge you all to talk to someone who is different than you, from a different walk of life entirely. Be honest with them. Be open. Understand that you might not understand their struggles, triumphs, or pains. Understand that loving and accepting your own struggles, triumphs, and pains will enable you to offer that same love to others. And finally, do all that you can to dismantle harmful labeling, to challenge assumptions built on the flimsy cornerstone of race, sex, gender, or religion. Do all that you can to bring more nuance, understanding, and honest communication to the world. We need it now more than ever.

P.S. Donate to Campaign Zero, a nonprofit dedicated to ending police violence by

by limiting police interventions, improving community interactions, and ensuring accountability. Donate to the official George Floyd Memorial Fund HERE, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund HERE, or Color of Change, dedicated to improving and supporting Black communities, including ending cash bail and stopping anti-Black violence.


Sarah Rose

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