“My colleagues call me cuddly Maroccan.”
Oh?! What do you think of that?
“I do not really mind. I laugh it off . ”
I fell silent. I just didn’t know how to respond. The impact of her words grow in the silence.
Why do you think they call you cuddly Maroccan?
“I do not know.”
Have you ever asked them?
“No, but I think they mean it in a sweet way.”
Labels are belittling and narrow-minded
Don’t get me wrong, we all have a label for each other. Created by our split-second “good” or “bad” instincts. Our comfort zone that divides people into ‘safe’ and ‘danger’. That divides the world into convenient and inconvenient. In this case, the label is: cuddly Maroccan. Both interculturally and intraculturally.
I think it’s anything but sweet. I find it belittling and narrow-minded. The cuddly Moroccan who smiles everything away, unlike the Moroccan who you don’t want to hug? In the times we are living in with work floor policies on diversity and inclusion, this is demeaning.
Then what happens when she stands up for herself? Is she no longer cuddly? Is she losing her cuddly factor? And what beliefs of her own keep her in check?
You don’t go against authority?
You don’t cause conflict at work?
You keep calm because then nothing happens?
It’s not that bad, is it?
At least it is well-meaning?
By laughing it away, she has made it normal for her to be called ‘affectionately’ cuddly Moroccan. That is better than any other kind of Moroccan. Wait a minute, I have a label for that: institutional discrimination.
Labels thrive in silence
This brings me to another client, a woman in her mid-thirties, who says that during her studies she was repeatedly labeled ‘aggressive’. This happened when she stood up for something or entered into a discussion with someone. Her fierce voice or passionate response was labeled ‘aggressive’.
“Don’t be so aggressive!”
Basically the same as what my (white) husband does when I talk excitedly in a discussion.
His “say, take it easy”, makes me want to be aggressive.
Anyway, back to my client. Over the years, she was increasingly told to act normally, until she lost her voice and, her self-confidence.
The message she kept getting was that she must be in line with the prevailing Western corporate culture standards. The question is also whether a man would elicit the same reaction as a woman?
Labels are single stories
that are passed on from generation to generation.
👉🏼 The story of the ‘aggressive black woman’.
👉🏼 Or, the story of the cuddly Moroccan.
👉🏼 Or, from the arrogant Indian. As a coach once said to me after reading my resume. He wondered if I had really done as much as what it said. That was the first time in the Netherlands that I fully became aware of my ethnicity and that the outside world can see me like that.
👉🏼 Or my mild-mannered, hyper-intelligent cousin who at work, when asked about the meaning of his Arabic name, does not dare to say that he is a Muslim. Afraid of the labels.
👉🏼 Or of the foreigner, newcomer, migrant, someone with a migration background (far too tall), foreigner, immigrant, colored people who steal jobs and facilities.
But also labels that we give each other regardless of color, gender, culture and religion. Because it is of course really not the case that labels are only about religion or ethnicity. Sub-labels like: thin, fat, long, short, flavor, tasteless, strong, weak, successful, loser, stupid, smart, loud, quiet, highly educated, low educated … come to mind when we look at another. Followed by overarching labels that are all about
Lose the label
Easier said than done. It’s so intertwined in everything we do. While I’m writing this, labels that I give myself pop up too. I will tell you that nine times out of ten they are negative.
For the next three days, our labels will be put to the test when we vote for a party. Political parties operate by definition from labels.
To make you aware of the sense and nonsense of labels, I have come up with two exercises for you.
1. Exercise for the labeller
Grab a notebook, find a quite spot to sit, and write down your answers. You can do this exercise alone or with others. Make into a Corona activity.
- Which (conscious, unconscious) labels do you use? Write them down without overthinking.
- Then choose one.
- When did this arise?
- What is the story behind this?
- Is it your story or a story that has been passed on?
- What facts do you have to support your label?
- Are these based on empirical research (individual scientific research)?
- How many people did you use for your research?
- To what extent is your label well-founded?
- Did you know that labels have an expiration date. Is your label still tenable?
- What about your other labels now?
- Exercise for the labelled
- Which labels do you get stuck with?
- Choose one. How do you deal with it?
- If you do respond, how is this received by the labeller?
- Is this the response you want?
- Did you lost your label as a result of this? Or, is it getting less and less? Or…
- If you don’t respond, why is that?
- Which ideas, beleifs, assumptions cause you to not respond?
- Are these based on a story?
- Where did that story or stories come from?
- Is this story or are these stories still relevant?
- Do they fit in the climate of the time in which we now live?
- Labels have an expiration date. Is your label still tenable?
- What about your other labels?
Do you realize that we are both labelled and labeller?
But we have one label that unites us all: human being.
Please share the outcome of your research with me. Do you want to talk about it together? Please let me know. I would like to organize an occasion where we can talk openly and honestly.
The fable of the label
What do I want to do about it? Create a positive climate in which we talk about this without hesitation and shame and without coming up with new demeaning labels. To expose the prevailing outdated beliefs, ideas and assumptions. Debunking the fables and sharing real stories with each other.
Let’s connect without judgment. Be accepting instead of tolerating. Create new human stories instead of following baseless fables.
And last but not least: vote for a woman.