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Unlacing the Cultural Labels: Cultural Labels: A Tool to Box Life

Unlacing the Cultural Labels: Cultural Labels: A Tool to Box Life

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By Dr. Shruti Shankar Gaur

“Yesterday I was clever, I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, I am changing myself.” - Rumi

I have been working in the field of inclusion and diversity for more than a decade now. The apparent and nuanced socio-cultural prejudices between different sects sadden me. Instead of building a larger table for everyone, we have been successful in building higher walls. Thus, restricting ourselves within the narrowness of our own being.

I have been preoccupied for days, months, and even years pondering this question: can we unlace the cultural labels that define us?

When any female (apart from Homo sapiens) gives birth, the baby belongs to the whole herd. However, when a human baby is born, a tag is tied to its* hand, identifying the mother’s name. The child is discharged from the hospital and given to the parents after they fill out a series of legal documents. To me, the documentation is a stamping process. Within a few minutes, the newborn’s name, gender, religion, caste, language, nationality, and possible impairments have been etched in stone. The child has entered the larger cultural clan.

Did the child have any choice when it was being categorized? Absolutely not! These invisible classifications have always played a significant role in shaping the thoughts, behavior and perception of every human child that becomes an adult, thus following the pattern of their predecessors.

What are these unseen forces, and how do they work? Yuval Noah Harari has defined them as "imagined reality" in Sapiens, Richard Dawkins termed them as ‘memes’ and Daniel Quinn called them ‘the voice of mother culture’. In Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz explains the domestication of every child in accordance with cultural customs, traditions, and beliefs by the age of seven. Didn’t Aristotle declare, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man”.

Children do not choose their culture. Instead, they are born into a given culture. There’s no escape from it. By now, children have developed a sense of belonging within the clan. It affiliates itself with a particular nation, caste, religion, race, gender, ability, or disability. Thus, an adult’s identity is the summation of all these collective classifications. However, in doing so, it disintegrates itself from every ‘other’ or "diverse" category of fellow humans.

Thus, the human child is never the child of humanity. The human child doesn’t think in terms of the human race. It perceives the world through the myopic lens of assigned  labels that were stamped without its permission. Thus, creating the tangible imagined reality the child lives by throughout their life! Let’s face it, we've all been there.

Why is that a problem, you might wonder? Every culture is beautiful in its own way and offers a way of life inherited through generations. However, when different cultures clash instead of co-existing in harmony, the whole idea of classification turns sour. When categorization discriminates one human from another, it often leads to more hatred than love, and one ends up questioning the purpose of it all.

I often wonder. What if I never knew my nationality, caste, religion, gender, or race? What if I explored all the available options and chose whichever I felt most connected to? I am a product of all the cultural beliefs, personal experiences, and cognitive knowledge I have accrued. They define me!

Someone from across the globe may look at me and identify my gender as a woman by listening to my voice or the way I dress. They will determine my race as South Asian by matching the color of my skin, eyes, and hair. But I am more than that. Unless they spend time with me, they may never know that I share more in common with them than they realize. Just like any other human, I have a beating heart that holds dreams and hopes.

My South Asian experiences and cultural upbringing are an added feather to look at the world, if only anyone was willing to view it from my perspective. And what if I had a disability? Will the added label box me as an object of pity or someone to stay away from? Will I be more different?

Bias is universal. Only the label changes. In a pluralistic society like India,diversity includes caste, religion, language, and region. In North America, it may be race or class. However, gender bias and disability exclusion are common experiences  in every culture.

I had been constantly nagged by these very thoughts:

Does labeling impact our ability to love, acknowledge, accept, respect, welcome, and celebrate one another?

Is categorizing the biggest roadblock in creating an inclusive world?

Have these labels turned into shackles?

Do these shackles then restrict an individual from living up to their maximum potential?

And most importantly, how can I shun this ‘imagined reality" from the fiber of my own being?

Who will I be, then? What will I identify myself with? What will my identity be?

I have been living with these questions for quite some time now. I understand that different classifications were created to manage the large human population. However, I am not sure they are relevant today. I believe, if labels teach us to fear the ‘other’ instead of extending a hand of faith and love, it’s time we question the classification.

What if I want the labels to become insignificant? Do I have to become bigger than the  labels so that they no longer constrain me? How do I become bigger than these stamps that define me?

As soon as this thought emerged, so did the names of people in history who had achieved it. Jesus doesn’t belong to only Christians. His message of love and compassion was for everyone. The same goes for Guru Nanak, Prophet Mohammed, or Moses. They rose above the labels that defined them at that time. It is we who have sadly re-categorized them.

So did Socrates, Lao Tzu, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, and so on. Do we remember Buddha as the prince he was born as? No, he broke the shackles imposed by society? Is Jesus a shepherd? Will Moses be classified as a prince or a slave? Can we restrict Gandhi’s message of peace and non-violence to India? Does Mother Teresa belong to the poor only? Does the Dalai Lama represent Buddhists only? The universality of their philosophy appeals to every human.

As I looked around, I discovered legends like Keanu Reeves, Gord Downie, Andre De Grasse, Margaret Atwood, Wayne Gretzky ….  have broken all the bonds of nation, language, region, religion, or race. Each one of them aced their craft and became the epitome of excellence. In becoming so, they broke the social boundaries that defined them. Think about it!

I know what I have to do until I am bereft of these labels. I shall work relentlessly on myself until I am one with every being.

“Yesterday I was clever, I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, I am changing myself.” - Rumi

*Deliberately the pronoun ‘it’ has been used for the human child instead of he or she, so as to showcase the gender free label.

** I am sure there might be many other ways as well. As of now, I am aware of one. While I work on myself, the quest is ongoing……

About the Author:

Dr. Shruti Shankar Gaur describes herself as a nonplussed mother, a Luna to her Alpha, a passionate entrepreneur, a novice thinker, a hard-core dreamer, a scruffy poet, a true seeker, and an unusual sinner. She bares her soul in her blog: Pain & Bliss

(The views contained in this article are solely those of the author, intended for entertainment and opinion based editorials purposes only. They do not represent the views of any organization we are otherwise associated with.)

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