by Judith Shantz
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. That was the childhood response to playground bullies, but it was never true. Words do hurt, far more than sticks or stones. Mindless cruelties. Retard and queer. We never outgrew it, the words just changed – redneck, welfare queen – nasty labels of otherness. Where did we learn these words?
Surely deplorables and bad hombres have always been with us. Somewhere in our evolution we crossed a line, from the simple needs of the clan, “Og kills antelope” to the despicable rejection of otherness, “Og hates fags”.
The Ogs have become more sophisticated over the millennia but their type is universal. In America they now have perfectly ordinary, European names. They wear business suits. Some even have titles – doctor, congressman, pastor, president. Their message is often more nuanced but it is still the same brand of hate.
I belonged to a generation of believers. We were the granolas and the tree-huggers, the marchers and the protesters. It was a heady time with great music as its backdrop – music that gave us our anthems and promised “Times, they are a-changing”. We were, perhaps, naïve but our tents were big – Civil Rights, Human Rights, Women’s Rights – and our hearts were expansive.
But it wasn’t quite enough. We grew up and had babies and needed jobs. We cut our hair and put on work clothes and took out mortgages. The fierce momentum lagged and those big tents shriveled, became more exclusive, leaving the most vulnerable behind. Now, in some quarters, ‘colorism’ embraces only lighter-skinned African Americans and Feminism has been reduced to a fight for reproductive rights – certainly a critical issue but not the only one.
In greater and greater numbers, the disenfranchised have turned to the politics of identity, rising up to claim their own labels and narratives. This wasn’t caused by any single event – it cannot be laid at the feet of September 11 or Trayvon Martin or even FOX News – those were simply catalysts. “I will no longer permit you to define me; I will name my own identity.”
This has been empowering for some. We can see that in the happy proliferation of rainbow flags. But it has also left so many others in little bubbles of aloneness, struggling to reimagine their own unique identities, standing rigid and apart, each with his or her own label. “This adjective, this pronoun, this acronym, this is my unique identity. You are Other. You cannot know my pain.” We tiptoe through these minefields, afraid that our words will, in the parlance of the day, ‘disrespect’ those Others. And now, in these politically charged times, ‘PC’ itself has become a pejorative.
Am I an innocent in all this? Alas, no. I am a world class ranter and have been known to broad-brush, at least privately, entire populations as anti-intellectual and bigoted. I have also indulged in creating my own identity, my label. I have let the few really nasty, anti-immigrant tirades hurled at me get under my skin and stick there, like a tick bite, festering. I have sometimes worn my alien status as a badge of honor.
Yet my particular identity is mostly invisible. I am only really affronted by the attacks on the millions of other immigrants who stand out because their skin color or language marks them as alien. I can really only imagine what the reality is for poor people standing in long lines outside the food banks, the disabled children, the men of color or the women in hijab; people who wear their ‘otherness’, their ‘lesserness’ in public every day. We cannot fail to see and understand this pain. All those individual identities, celebrating their otherness because they have so little else – no hope of prosperity in a fabulously wealthy land, no hope for respect or admiration, no anticipation of acceptance or justice in the only home they know.
While immigrant may be part of my life experience, it doesn’t define me any more than gay or black or atheist defines anyone else. I don’t want to think of people as adjectives or acronyms. Those words do not portray any of us in our wholeness.
Ultimately, my resistance is to labels of all kinds, whether the undeserved ones or the self-selected ones. I do not want to sanctify otherness. Some of us are saintly, others not so admirable. But our simple humanity still makes us all eminently knowable. While it is impossible not to notice basic physical differences, I want to look you full in the face and see simply another human being. I want to listen to your story and see in you the whole person that you are.
I would return to my 1967 self and feel the upwelling energy of the fight for justice, and all those other fights, against poverty and homelessness, against corruption and greed – but never, ever against one another.
One by one, I am trying to lay down all the stick and stones.
Author’s Bio: Judy Shantz grew up on the freezing/scorching Canadian prairie but always longed for a more gentle clime; preferably one with the scent of roses and salt sea in the air. Her first full-length novel, The Case of the Flickering Flashlight, was written at the age of nine and accepted by her loving parents with amazement and scarcely-disguised laughter. Her adult writings fill notebooks, spill out of files, cover cocktail napkins and the backs of grocery lists and her association with Red Wheelbarrow Writers is providing the inspiration to add flesh and feathers and fancy pants to all those characters waiting to be heard.