Since last Sunday’s premiere of Oprah’s segment, “Where Are They Now?” Raven-Symone has set the Twittersphere on fire. Though Oprah predicted as much on her talk show, the child star of the Cosby show and later the Disney hit, “That’s So Raven,” did not foresee the reaction to her controversial statement renouncing the personal labels “gay” and “African American.”
Prompted by Oprah, Raven shared her experience of coming out, but was quick to add, “I don’t want to be labeled gay. I want to be labeled a human who loves other humans. I’m tired of being labeled. I am an American. I am not an African American; I’m an American … that’s a colorless person because we are all people.”
Many responded to her initial statement with anger; regarding her rejection of this label as self-hatred, “othering” of the black community, “whitewashing the richness of her African-American culture” and ignorant. However, others have applauded Raven on exercising her right to self-identify and interpreted her labelless response as a bold denial of stereotypes attached to the African-American and gay labels. So which is it — liberating, or yet another iteration of conservative racial and queer politics?
Many supporters of Symone have pointed out, as Vox Media contributor Jenee Desmond-Harris did in her recent article, that race is socially constructed and that racial categories are therefore fluid and open to interpretation and reinterpretation. While this assertion is completely true (consider the history of immigration in the U.S. when Irish used to be a different race, compared to now), and individuals do have a right to self-identify, this doesn’t mean that larger social constructions of race do not shape our experiences. In other words, regardless of the labels we personally accept or reject, how society labels us is going to have an enormous impact on the way we move through the world and the systematic privileges we are privy to or barred from.
In a panel hosted by Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, the talk-show host equated the star’s de-contextualized notion of self-identification to “…an aggressive individualism that lets you step outside time and space and law…” pointing to her labelless approach as not being grounded in reality, or acknowledging the larger social contexts that shape us.
I completely understand the desire to shirk labels; they can be limiting and one dimensional, flattening individuals to one polarizing element of their identity. The truth of course, is that there is so much more to an individual than their race, sexual orientation, gender, country of origin or whatever the label. Further, the stereotypes that these labels carry with them can be extremely detrimental, particularly for marginalized identities. In this way, I understand (as much as my experience as a racially privileged person will allow) Raven’s desire to be viewed holistically, as a multifaceted human being first before “African American” or “gay” that bring with them specific sets of stereotypes as well as systematic oppression. But in truth, it is not the labels that are the problem; it is the value that we assign to them.
Raven’s need to assert her humanity separate from the label “African-American,” points to a set of privileges that exist under a “human” category that are denied to those with the “African-American” label. These advantages are part of the hierarchical system of white privilege in the United States that has historically and continues today to deny equal access to resources and opportunity to people of color. This power structure that dictates and assigns value based on race is the real problem and cannot be fixed or dismantled with a simple manipulation of rhetoric.
Further, this humanist rhetoric is actually detrimental, “blurring the lines of race into invisibility,” and the larger power structures with them. This recent phenomenon is called color-blind racism and operates under the false notion that shared difference among all people makes us equal; as Raven said, “I’m an American … that’s a colorless person because we are all people.” In this version of racism, we don’t see color or difference, and use the fact that we all have differences a homogenizing principle of equality, while the same oppressive power structure exists underneath, essentially burying the hierarchical system of white supremacy under yet another layer of denial.
As much as I would like everyone to be recognized as equal, this is simply not the reality in America right now. While it may be convenient to ignore the labels and boxes society puts us in, it is important not to linguistically erase those differences. Yes, we are so much more than our separate identites and to sever a person into just a few of the things that make them who they are is dehumanizing and wrong, but so is requiring homogenization as a grounds for equality. We need to address why difference matters so much in our society instead of denying that it does.
Collegian Columnist Caroline King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter by @cgking7.