We are by nature labeling machines -- it's one of the secrets to our species' survival.
We categorize and label everything -- animals, people, situations.
And then we act as if those categories define reality.
Of course, they don’t; almost everything we label could fit into more than one category. But in daily life, unless motivated to behave differently, we stick things in narrow pigeonholes because it’s easier than analyzing and weighing their actual characteristics, similarities and differences.
That’s especially true in our dealings with other people, who are orders of magnitude more complex than inanimate objects.
Categorical thinking may have helped our prehistoric ancestors traverse the African savannah safely when anyone outside their tribe was a potential enemy, but in the second decade of the 21st century, it’s shortsighted and dangerous.
I was reminded of this in a recent talk about OtherWise, a book that ironically makes this very argument.
In the course of my presentation, I pointed out that the U.S. is rapidly becoming a minority-majority country largely because of the growth in the Hispanic population.
In the Q&A, one of the audience members objected to the term "Hispanic." She was a college professor who emphatically didn't consider herself "Hispanic," though she had immigrated from Ecuador, and Spanish was admitedly her first language.
Indeed, the term "Hispanic" is an administrative contrivance created by the Census Bureau more than 40 years ago to count Americans who trace their roots to Spanish-speaking countries. It has zero scientific meaning.
The same could be said of the racial categories on the census form, which pointedly notes that race is a "social-political construct" with no "anthropological or scientific" basis.
So why use those labels at all? The federal government needs data on ethnic ancestory and race to implement a host of laws (e.g., enforcing bilingual election rules under the Voting Rights Act; monitoring and enforcing equal employment opportunities under the Civil Rights Act). The data is also used by local governments to run programs (e.g., identifying segments of the population who may not be receiving medical services under the Public Health Act). And businesses uses the demographic data for everything from locating plants to setting marketing budgets.
In fact, it was leaders of ethnic and racial groups who asked for the categories way back in the '70s. And the Census Bureau has tapped into their expertise ever since.
Still, the census labels can be misleading. For example, as this Pew Research shows, more than half of people who self-identify as "Hispanic" on the census form say they usually identify themselves by their family’s country of origin; less than a quarter say they normally use the "Hispanic" or "Latino" label.
And by a ratio of two to one, the survey respondents said the nation's 50 million people with roots in Spanish-speaking countries do not share a common culture.
Most importantly, nearly half say they consider themselves to be "very different from the typical American." Eight out of 10 say they speak Spanish and nearly all want their children to.
No organization is more aware of these issues than the U.S. Census Bureau. This morning, it reported on experiments it is running to better match its need for gathering demographic data with the way people think of themselves.
It's a worthy effort. Meanwhile, in our day-to-day lives, the rest of us would be wise to lay all our labels aside.
No one is defined by their accent or the shade of their complexion. Even if the government has to track it because some people act as if it does.