Labels—We Can’t Live Without Them...or With Them
We all do it. Upon meeting someone new, we immediately size up the other person even before we say a single word to each other. Based on previous experiences each of us has throughout our life, the brain processes information our eyes collect such as physical characteristics (gender, race, height, weight), attire, and body language (facial expression, mannerisms) to determine if the person is friend or foe.
In fact, labeling others is an evolutionary skill. Before civilization, the difference between life or death often depended on how quickly we were able to determine whether strangers encountered in the forest could be of assistance, be a potential mate, or could harm us. Over time, the brain learns who to trust and who to avoid at all costs. That’s why you may get a warm feeling inside when encountering people that look like your mom or become anxious if they resemble a bully from high school.
However, there is evidence this is not a perfect system; research shows many of us are unaware of the quick judgements our brains make on our behalf reflecting our cultural and social experiences. These unconscious biases unknowingly help us to form opinions about others. By now we know the negative ramifications that occur when we jump to conclusions about people based on their skin color or gender.
As someone whose career is focused on enabling equity and opportunity for others, I know what can happen when we fail to realize our judgements of others are based on the unconscious biases. Being gay, this happens to me all the time. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard relatives or friends of my parents say, “You would have made a terrific parent.” Even though they may think this is a way of paying me a compliment about my potential parenting skills, I instead am left wondering if down deep they think gay men are not fit to be parents.
But what happens when we as LGBTQ people make those who happen not to be LGBTQ but advocate on our behalf feel like they do not belong? That’s exactly what happened to an acquaintance of mine named Bart who recently asked for my advice regarding his involvement with an LGBTQ non-profit in our community.
To provide some context, I came to know Bart through our mutual support of this organization and soon learned he was a “straight ally.” This is a term used to describe someone who is not gay but actively supports LGBTQ people through intentional acts like attending LGBTQ events, voting for pro-LGBTQ candidates, and being an advocate for LGBTQ people when they hear something offensive.
Bart shared with me that when he volunteers, others who are LGBTQ introduce him by saying, “This is Bart...he is an ally.” My guess is that labeling Bart in this way was done with good intentions, perhaps as a way to minimize the likelihood of future awkward situations should others assume Bart was gay just because he supports the cause.
While Bart has never doubted his friends were grateful for his support, he suspected those that knew him only as “Bart the ally” treated him differently. For example, comments from others when discussing LGBTQ civil rights gave Bart the impression he could not possibly have a true understanding of the struggles gay men experienced because he was straight.
Bart could not understand why these gay people, who in the past themselves were made to feel like they mattered less just because of their sexual orientation, were doing the same thing to him. From where Bart sat, he believed it must be because he was straight. I asked Bart if he knew for sure this was how others viewed him, and he said no.
Bart is not alone when it comes to feeling uncomfortable in situations like this, especially in today’s politically-charged and polarizing world. That’s why I strongly encourage people to step back and ask themselves why they feel the way they do in circumstances like this.
If Bart still felt uneasy about his relationship with the other volunteers after reflecting on the situation, the only way he will know for sure is by having a one-on-one conversation to see if his hunch is correct. Reaching out in a non-accusatory way can serve to clear up any misunderstanding while at the same time raising awareness about why the gesture or statement made Bart feel that way.
For an organization like CAMP Rehoboth, which is moving into the next phase of its growth, it is always a good idea to take time and seek feedback from all stakeholders as to how it communicates internally and externally. Keeping an open mind and being willing to do better ensures CAMP Rehoboth achieves its mission—creating a more inclusive community with room for all. ▼
Wesley Combs is a diversity and inclusion expert and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding Principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality, and opportunity in the workplace and the community.