Yesterday I went to a show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by Joe Sellman-Leava entitled ‘Labels’, which told of Joe growing up in rural south west England in the 1990s, the questions and comments about his dual heritage, and also examined the way we use words, the line between curiosity and fear, and the rise of anti-immigration rhetoric.
It got me thinking of the topic of labels, which I often tell people when they try put them on me that they belong on foods not human beings. We put labels in theory to group us together, but in fact they put distances between us as see someone that does not have the same label as us as different or we use them as a way to stigmatise someone for being different. When no two humans are ever truly unique, including identical twins, why do labels continue to give labels such power?
Joe told us how his surname is unique to five people, his parents/siblings/himself and the story of how it came to be. It made consider how relatively common my own surname is the UK, one name shared among 1000s of people on this small island alone, and in some ways I felt jealous for a moment of Joe’s uniqueness but at the same time how grateful there would not be the racist comments, hate and impressions his parents encountered with my own surname.
It also made me reflect on to my first name, which I hate. Why do I hate it, as it is a very strong word to use for one’s own name? Quite simply it goes back to my teenage years when I was badly bullied, any new pupil starting at my secondary or high school were told “nobody is friends with Fiona“. The stigma and pain of that cut me like a thousand blades ripping into my skin and still bearing the scars almost twenty years later. My family nickname was Oni, which my eldest brother always added “moanie” too, because I questioned things and did not want to be forced to do certain things that he or other people wanted me to do. So I use Fi, which is the name all my closest friends use and feels right when I hear or see them use.
My middle names I do not like either. Sarah is after my great aunt of the same name, in many ways my surrogate grandmother and not an easy woman to like, which my father would agree upon as told me a few years back it was only added as he registered me as it would “keep the old bat happy“! My other middle is Jane after Sarah’s sister, my actual grandmother, that died when my mother was but a toddler and so have no idea who this woman was. However, as a name it jars on my ears, as my mother would shout – “Lady Jane“, whenever she felt I had done anything to ire her as a child.
My nationality – Anglo-Scot, not Scottish or English or even British; my father was from North West England and my mother South West Scotland, thereby making me a “half-breed” (as I have been called in the past). I have never felt I could claim to be Scots or English as feel a mix of both but perhaps more culturally I identify with England than Scotland. for I am certainly no Braveheart or SNP supporter (no I don’t vote Conservative/Labour/UKIP before your mind wanders).
My father would reinforce my Englishness when any major sports events were on television, when the UK played as different nations, and tell me I should be supporting England as I was English. Both my brothers, unlike me, speak and read Scots; if I hear it spoken I have been known to ask for subtitles as don’t always follow what is being said. When I meet people from my home city I get told after saying yes I grew up here, “oh well, you don’t sound local“! Yes I have moved around the UK and lived briefly in Italy but found that remark curious and led me to ponder “well where do I sound like I’m from“?!
When applying for jobs, the so called “Equal opportunities form” many companies ask for along with an application form wants information on us relating to gender to race, religion, sexuality and disability, all of which for me are labels that we use to box people in and expect them to be a certain way before we even meet them. Do these forms really make things equal or as excuses not employ certain people, and even so they can meet some secret criteria in certain areas?
Thinking of the question of race, I often find companies try split White into White Scottish and White English not White British or simply White, I suddenly find myself questioning how the River Tweed can mark such a difference on an island that they need to have two distinct labels and which one or neither am I? I have close friends that would be identified as being of mixed race, my mother once remarked one was “half something“, to which I responded “English like me” before leaving her to wallow in the mire she’d created. I do not see race but the person I am talking to and their personality.
Thinking of race made me remember a supermarket chain, which now no longer existing in the UK, many of my friends said of their branch in Aberdeen how diverse the staff were c.f. another no longer existing chain that they were so white they were transparent! When a friend worked for the second company she found they did have a few (‘token’) non-white people working behind the scenes as were almost ashamed to have them seen and/or served by the public! Was this a reflection of late 1990s/early 2000s Britain, or was it company policy at that time?
Another question on the forms is religious belief. To me belief is a very personal thing, and because of certain events to stories in the media certain religions are seen a certain way. If someone is a Muslim, it leads to an automatic label of terrorist by many, without trying to see the media is painting a false picture of many peaceful people like you or I but identify their beliefs in this way. To me it should not matter if you worship an afro haired Martian to a man who died on a cross, as long as you do not use it as a way to excuse behaviour that hurts or exclude others.
Then there is the question of sexual orientation, this almost always gives me a heavy sigh to read, does it matter to my work who I choose as my partner in my personal life if does not impact upon on my working life? As someone that has no sexual desire, i.e. asexual, to be asked if I’m heterosexual, gay, bisexual or prefer not to say is awkward and feel I can never give a truthful answer as I am attracted to neither gender and do not identify myself in such a way. Due to our beliefs above we can use them as an excuse or reason to dislike someone due to how they perceive some that is perhaps gay or bisexual to be without getting to know them, the same way some may with their religious beliefs.
The question though I am most scared to answer is on disability, do I consider myself disabled? No I do not. However, I have been diagnosed with depression, fibromyalgia, and dyspraxia, any of them could be seen as a disability but to me they are part of the colours that make me, well me. I have been called names and labelled all sorts relating to all of these, but it is perhaps my dyspraxia that I had the worst bullying and abuse as people do not understand or know of it. Mental health I have had people find my honesty on my battles helps them be more open rather than wear their diagnosis with pain or a jumper to keep them warm as defines them now rather than let their personality not the label show.
I may continue to dislike labels, particularly when used as a way to define me that I am not. I often fall between two so how is one or either truly a reflection of me as an individual? Is it not time we saw beyond a label and saw the person? I believe by listening to those that experience different aspects of life helps us understand and grow as people. So put down The Sun, Daily Mail or The Guardian, The Times, and explore the world for ourselves not through dirty spectacles. Finally, if in Edinburgh do go to Joe’s show as it certainly is powerful stuff and thought provoking work.
© Fi S. J. Brown