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Labels vs. Heritage: A Question of Sense of Self?

In reaction to a recent controversial statement by actress Raven-Symone, one African American mom responds

Published on: October 20, 2014

Editor's note:
In response to a recent statement by actress Raven-Symone that got many families talking about race, we asked two moms to weigh in on the benefit, or drawback, of labels. Read our partner piece here for a different view.

A few days ago, actress Raven-Symone set social media on fire with a personal declaration. In an interview with none other than Oprah, Raven boldly spoke about her view of herself and how she is labeled in today’s world. Part of the controversial statement read as follows:

I will say this: I don’t know where my roots go to. I don’t know how far back and I don’t know what country in Africa. I do know that my roots are in Louisiana. I’m an American, and that’s a colorless person.

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a lot of my friends about her statements, and I didn’t really give her words much thought until I asked myself whether America was really “a colorless person” as she stated. Could we really raise our children to only be “American” regardless of their skin color?

My answer: no.

Don’t get me wrong. Part of the sentiment is actually quite uplifting, but, as a black woman, it doesn’t seem very realistic. Even children recognize differences in people, but they don’t know to hate and fear those differences unless they’re taught to do so by ignorant adults who hate and fear. There are plenty of people from every race who raise their children to recognize differences in people without teaching them to hate, stereotype or generalize; but the fact remains — we are different, and to take those differences away would be to erase our pasts, our unique histories and our sense of self.

Raven is right. Black people can’t trace their roots back to a specific African country. I do agree with her in that aspect. Where she loses me is when she claims she’s a colorless person. I don’t think she meant that she was ashamed of her race, but I do think that her statement shows her naivety. Perhaps it’s because she’s a star who grew up privileged, rich and famous and she never had to confront issues of race. Either way, the belief that you’re a “colorless” person in today’s America is a bit of a fantasy.

The truth is, we do label, and for the foreseeable future, we will continue to label. Asian, Italian, white, Irish, Polish, black, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Jewish, Native American: those aren’t just “labels,” they’re heritage. Each one of those labels, races or nationalities comes with history, unique experiences, hardships and traditions. The different cultures that make up this country is what makes us so unique. From the Italian neighborhoods of New York to Chinatown in San Francisco, we can experience a world of different cultures right in our own backyards because of the people who embrace their heritage and sense of self while making this country a better, more diverse place to live.

Even if you don’t want to raise your children with labels, it’s important to recognize that others will continue to label them, and they need to prepare for that — good, bad and ugly.

I will close with giving credit to Raven for providing a follow-up to her controversial statements. When the social media firestorm started, she stated:

 I never said I wasn’t Black… I want to make that very clear. I said, I am not African-American. I never expected my personal beliefs and comments to spark such emotion in people. I think it is only positive when we can openly discuss race and being labeled in America.

She’s right. Having open, intelligent discussions on race and labels in America can help us as a country and as individuals. Burying our head in the sands and pretending we don’t have differences that affect who we are and how we see the world does little else than contribute to overall cluelessness and possibly even resentment.

I’m an American. I’m a woman. I’m a mother. I’m a wife. I’m black.

Those are my labels and I’m perfectly happy with acknowledging and embracing all of them.


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