Growing up in the suburbs of Tacoma, my day-to-day surroundings up until college were friendly (often gated) neighborhoods clustered around elementary schools, and 35 mph roads.
“Normal” to me meant walking to and from school (which I loved), walking my Labrador retriever on the fields of my school, and walking with friends between our houses or to grab a bite to eat. As you can probably tell, I grew up walking everyday. I didn’t question it, it was safe.
Once or twice a year I visited Seattle with family and on orchestra field trips. We saw the Space Needle, Husky Stadium, and the Seattle Center. I didn’t think much of those visits, I was mainly just enjoying time with wonderful people.
Back in 2015 (two and a half years already wow) when I graduated from high school I started to prepare for moving to Seattle. When I really got to thinking about college, I knew the heart of Washington was where I wanted to be. I saw Seattle as a place of opportunity, innovation , and independence.
To this day, I still see Seattle as having all of those qualities, but I also quickly learned that a large urban area with diverse peoples is much more complex than I could have imagined growing up where I did.
I think about Seattle everyday, what it has opened my eyes to & what it has closed my eyes to. Many of the lessons I’ve learned are directly tied to my university experience at the largest liberal arts school in the state.
So, here is the most important lesson that Seattle has taught me over the past few years..
Titles have the power to dehumanize.
For the first time in my life I saw widespread homelessness almost everyday, even on the outskirts of my campus. I realized that, at least to me, there’s a significant difference between calling someone a “homeless person” and calling him/ her a “person who is homeless.” It’s all too easy to focus on the title of homeless first, rather than acknowledging their humanity and standing as equal persons just like anyone else.
Recognizing personhood before labeling decreases the feelings of stigma, or even blame, that can arise around homelessness. This concept of how we use labels to simplify people into general categories often lowers the perceived worth of those we label. Specifically, when we do this we aren’t recognizing them as people first, but instead as homeless people.
Labeling has the power to lower others’ value in your eyes.
In other cases we may describe or think of someone as a “poor” person, rather than a person who is poor. Or, maybe she is Asian (or any other racial / ethnic group) rather than a person who is Asian. A Muslim (or any other religious affiliation) rather than a person who is Muslim.
In other words, I’ve learned how the arrangement of the words we use can dramatically shape how we perceive them. The most dangerous part of this is that we usually are unaware of the labeling. We may think homeless people rather than people who are homeless because the mass media describes them in the former way, possibly as a shortcut or simply because that’s just the norm.
Regardless, because of Seattle I’ve become more conscious of how I mentally and verbally characterize people. No matter what makes a person or group of people different from you, keep in mind that they are still a person before they are anything else.
Thinking this way, we all have much in common.
Labeling is lowering- but labeling is a choice.
I’d love to hear your thoughts (on my thoughts) in the comments!
Thanks for reading 🙂