Thursday, May 22, 2014

On -isms: Labels

Back in high school, a friend of mine gifted to me a collection of a couple hundred comics. His older brother had just died, and he wanted to set aside that part of his life. That's how I came to read as many X-Men books as I have. I was never a big fan; the cast and continuity seemed impossibly convoluted even by then. In part because of that, New Mutants #45 stands out as it's a stand-alone story and easy to follow along regardless of how much/little you know about the X-universe.

The theme of the X-Men as a stand-in for racism and bigotry was well-trod by then. Looking back, it could be a bit ham-fisted at times, but for pre-teens and teenagers, you tend to need that lack of subtlety to get your message across. That New Mutants story was a little like that.

In the story, a student arrives at a new school and is taunted by all the popular kids. They call him "such a rat-faced, geeky little dweeb" that he must be a "mutie." Which stings more than it might because he was, in fact, a mutant. He's bullied more and, rather than continue to face the ongoing taunts, commits suicide.

The story ended with Kitty Pryde providing a eulogy...
Reading that again now, I still get teary-eyed. It was an incredibly powerful statement for me to hear at that time in my life, and I carried that comic around like a totem for months. I read it over and over again, on seemingly every bus ride home from school after yet another day of insults and ostracization. This single comic is largely what got me through high school.

And this is me we're talking about here. White, gisgendered, heterosexual male. I have just about every social priveledge that one can be born with. By all rights, I shouldn't have needed this. I shouldn't have needed to be so deeply touched by the message in this comic. I shouldn't have needed to be told that those insults are nothing compared to what some people endure. I shouldn't have needed to be told that those insults were just labels meant to confine us to a small box.

I pulled this issue out for the first time in decades to write this post. I set the comic aside when I left for college, thinking that I would effectively be able to start over and leave all of that high school bullshit behind. And I've never cracked it since then for fear that it would be far inferior than the importance I put upon it would critically warrant. But I was struck by two things just now in re-reading this issue.

First, that last panel. I didn't consciously remember that as a critical part of the story or even a significant part of Kitty's speech. But I know that for a little over a decade now, I've actively eschewed labels of any kind. I can only find a published version of my declaration of that from 2010, but it was something I had clearly given some thought to prior. That I find the exact same sentiment in this book from three decades ago speaks to just how much I took this issue to heart.

The second thing that strikes me is that the issue holds up really well. There's some dated cultural references and clothing styles, but it holds up very well overall. Yeah, it's not terribly subtle, but for a stand-alone issue, I don't know that it has the time to afford to be. Were I 14, 15, 16 years old now, I suspect I'd respond to it in much the same way as when I first encountered it. Which speaks very well to the storytelling going on here.

But more importantly, it means that the underlying message holds up as well. That those labels that people ascribe to us can have a self-defeating prophecy. That bigotry is another form of bullying, and can be equally traumatic. People aren't labels. People are people, and if you ascribe ANY traits to them based on some broad classification of race or gender or sexuality or whatever, you are being a bigot and a bully and should be treated accordingly.

You want to know who I am? I'm Sean Kleefeld. That's the only thing that matters. The rest are just labels.


Matt K said...

With regards to "I shouldn't have needed this," in recent years I really feel more and more that our sensitivity to disadvantage has some complete blind spots.

In fact, thinking about it, you've probably summed it up admirably. If you're white, male, straight and not from appalling poverty, then "meh." Discrimination against any or all alternatives to the preceding is a serious issue; if by contrast you check all of those boxes and still don't fit in, well, that's life quit whining basically.

I don't see why this is or should be okay. There's more to disadvantage than just sex, race or money. I can offer at least two examples, familiar to me. We live in a believer's nation--primarily a Christian believer's nation--and nonbelievers are expected to stay in the closet and keep quiet. We also live in an extrovert's world, and most people don't even think about this at all let alone give consideration to how this may produce systemic bias against introversion.

These, again, are just things familiar to me personally. And while I'm sufficiently self-aware to realize that I have nonetheless also enjoyed various privileges in life, 1) I'm also sufficiently self-aware to realize that there are probably still more blind spots beyond those obvious to me, and meanwhile 2) evidence of individual success is by no means universally acknowledged as rendering other ideas of disadvantage as invalid.

Obviously I would like to be a self-determined individual rather than a demographic breakdown… but, that said I think that labels are a two-edged sword. It's more difficult for bias against something to exist if people don't notice it… but where it does exist it's probably much better insulated from any kind of corrective measure.

Sean Kleefeld said...

Totally hear you on the atheist, introvert thing. I didn't bring those up for two reasons. With atheism/agnosticism, that's a thought process, not something you're born with. You might not have much choice in the religion you're indoctrinated with, but you have a choice on whether you continue to believe in that faith after reason tells you it's bunk.

While introversion and left-handedness (to pull out another example) are something you're born with, and are generally biased against in society, I don't think the intolerance for those traits is nearly to the level of, say, being Black. Or gay.

Regardless, it boils down to recognizing what priveledges you DO enjoy because of your "normalcy" and what roadblocks others face because of their difference(s).