We’ve all heard it before when certain topics come up:
“I don’t see color. I see people.”
“I don’t care how you pray. All religions lead to god.”
“I don’t like labels like ‘gay’ or ‘straight.’ We’re all human.”
“When I look at you I don’t see a man or a woman. I see a friend.”
“It doesn’t matter who you vote for. The important thing is to participate.”
They are usually intended as a statement of support for marginalized people. It’s a way to say, “I’m not intolerant!” It sounds so warm, fuzzy, and affirming, right? Obviously if we don’t perceive a person as different, we must perceive them as equal? Right?
Well, not really. I suspect that most everyone reading this felt at least a little bit uncomfortable reading one of those statements. Or at the very least wanted to quibble with one. Which one rubs you the wrong way and why it does will be different from person to person, but the truth is that each of the statements is just as problematic. Even the ones you agree with.
First, let’s talk about labels. The person who ordered blood tests and prescribed medicine for me when I was sick is a doctor. The person who gives me assignments at work is my boss. The man I stood beside and said “I do” about when the officiant asked is my husband. The woman who gave birth to me is my mom. The man who adopted and raised my mother and her sister was my grandpa. We don’t have trouble with labels 99% of the time. Labels are how we communicate and make sense of just about everything in the world.
We only notice labels when those labels are perceived to promote or impede an agenda that we have a vested interest in. We only want to ignore labels when acknowledging them makes us uncomfortable. If, for instance, we benefit from a particular societal preference, acknowledging that difference implies that maybe our success isn’t solely due to our individual merits.
Ignoring labels is an act of denial or dismissal. Race, gender, religion, socio-economic status, sexual orientation are essential ingredients in our identity, whether we acknowledge it or not. Because we are confronted with and shaped by societal expectations from the day we are born. Just look at how outraged a lot of people got a few years ago when one couple tried to raise their baby genderless and refused to tell strangers the child’s sex. Or the many, many studies that have shown are very differently people interact with a baby depending on what gender they’ve been told the child is.
“To overcome racism, one must first take race into account.”
—Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun
The truth is that society discriminates against people based on race, gender, sexual identity, socio-economic status, religion, and many other factors that the people who are most likely to claim they don’t care about labels would agree shouldn’t make one unequal in the eyes of the law. We can’t make society more equitable if we don’t acknowledge both the inequalities and the things which trigger the unequal treatment.
So trying to ignore these labels—specifically either saying or implying that ignoring them is a better idea than using them—is a way to try to silence members of marginalized groups. It’s telling them that their lived experience of being discriminated against is less important than your comfort. And quite often it is often a way to say that you’re perfectly okay with the inequality as long as it doesn’t affect you.
Second, claiming that you don’t care. The more often someone repeats a statement that they don’t care about something, the harder it is to believe them. If they really didn’t care, they wouldn’t say anything. This has been demonstrated most clearly recently by people who get defensive about video games, claiming that the games aren’t sexist; besides, if you don’t like them, don’t play them. Then the same people threw a hissy fit and called for boycotts when someone cast four women to play the leads in the new Ghostbusters movie. If sexism and representation didn’t matter to them, they wouldn’t have gotten upset.
Now, I’ve had people claim that the only reason they say anything is because we keep talking about it (whichever category it is). This has happened to me personally most often in relationship to sexual orientation. The cliché that I have heard millions of time is, “why do you have to keep shoving your sexually in my face?” Most ironically it came from the co-worker who had plastered an entire wall of his office with pictures of himself, his wife, and their five children—and he was objecting to a single picture of my late first husband (in an ugly Christmas sweater, no less) that I had discretely tucked in a frame on my desk where most of the time no one but me could see it.
Humans are social animals. We often are defined by our relationships to other people. People mention spouses, children, parents, friends, niece and nephews, and so forth all the time, without thinking about it. Studies have shown that if people we work with are reluctant to share these sorts of real life details, that they are perceived as stand-offish and not team players. It affects the likelihood that they will get raises, get promotions, and even the likelihood that they will be the person chosen to be let go if there are layoffs. So queer people are caught in no-win situation. If they are honest and open about who they are, they get accused of shoving their sexuality on people. If they evade the topics, they’re not team players.
If labels really don’t matter, then you shouldn’t mind hearing about them.
Third, claiming that you don’t want to take sides, you just want to live and let live. Why does this have to be a conflict, you may ask? Or “being intolerant of bigotry isn’t very tolerant,” you may say. This is a false equivalency. It is logically identical to saying that the person who reports a theft to the authorities is making a victim of the thief.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
—Bishop Desmond Tutu
When inequalities exist, live and let live just perpetuates injustice. You aren’t being tolerant or neutral or impartial, you are actively supporting the side of the bigot. You are aiding in the oppression. You aren’t helping the oppressed, you are doing quite the opposite.
Stop telling me what you don’t care about or don’t see. Show me what you’re doing to make the world a better place.