Why we Must Throw Away the Labels Pinned to Us
Bonnie Greer on the need to deconstruct, examine and then reconstruct how we see ourselves.
We are in the Age of the Label. The Tag. The Definition. The Category. We are what we call ourselves. Or what we allow others to call us. As if nothing worth knowing about us exists out of this. We cannot now seem to talk, cannot now seem to understand unless we categorise.
Our Western brains like categorisation and I don’t know quite what to do about all this, except make observations and ask good questions. But I know now, at this point in my life, that I’m more than what I have and others have called/call me: a Black woman, an African American woman.
I have created a new term for myself and for the African diaspora of which I am a part. “Diaspora”, to me, is too lovely a word for us descendants of the deported and the enslaved. I call us “Meta Africa” – an Africa that is not the literal continent nor Europe nor America, but somewhere else. Something else.
Earlier this month, at the BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels, I decided to make a tiny launch of my theory of Meta Africa. I suggested to an audience, made up largely of Belgians of African descent, that they drop their labels in pursuit of something bigger. I also suggested to the young citizens in the audience that they ‘white up’ as a response to this country of Belgium, where grown-ups actually go around in blackface at Christmas, disguised in their version of the mythical figure Zwarte Piet.
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I asked the young people to suggest to the ‘Piet people’ what Europeans must have looked like to 16th and 17th Century Africans, alighting from huge vessels, many of them dressed in armour – and with white skin. In some African countries and cultures, white signifies death because of leprosy, for example. I urged them to do it – because sometimes it is important to allow people to feel, instead of hollering at them all the time. Sometimes it works.
The request was greeted with some anger. For others, such an approach went down well. For a young woman sporting a Black Lives Matter shoulder bag, it did not. I discovered later that she was a leading light in the black community in Brussels and I had not been what she expected. But, I don’t do careful.
At London’s British Museum early last month, I asked an auditorium full of professionals in the field whether they were involved with “diversity” or the “diversity business” – an exercise in box-ticking and funding-collecting, being risk-averse and surface-level.
It is always important to keep in mind that we humans are the masters of adjusting. In fact, we are quite brilliant at it. And most institutions have adjusted to the demands of diversity.
As Trustee Emerita at the British Museum, I will be curating a series of panels there in the new year exploring “The Era Of Reclamation”. With various individuals, I will investigate what I think is a sign of the times: reclamation – the belief that we want what we think is ours handed back to us, whether it is an object in a museum or our own right to self-definition.
This came about after a year of conversations with the museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, about what I wanted to do there. He listened with intent. While the museum itself will remain neutral, as it should be, it is the the enabler of my investigation and thinking into reclamation. For the first time, I believe, there will be four museum and university professionals – including the first woman of African descent to be made a full professor in this country – on stage at a global museum. We will not be there to fill a quota nor to tick a box.
It is important now to find a way out of the well-meaning, but stifling and limiting silos that have been constructed out of our deaths, our exclusion, our exploitation, our grief. Grief and loss are the hardest, but they can make silos, too. Because of social media and the absolute speed of life now, young people, especially, are in danger of creating safe spaces not to go forth from – in which they build refuges; spaces for camaraderie. These spaces and slogans can become wombs. And we all know that, to live, we have to leave the womb.
We need a determination to deconstruct, examine and then reconstruct. My generation made labelling a thing. It’s time to drop labels. All of them. Smash them up.