It is inevitable that many of our expectations preceding our entry into the unknown are influenced by the implicit biases we hold; it’s human nature. But I wonder how much our collective reliance on artificial labels informs such implicit biases.
The danger of labels is that they quickly evolve into rigid stereotypes; they allow stereotypes to deceptively lead us to believe that we know the whole story with one-size-fits-most identifier words like, “refugee,” “Palestinian,” or “underprivileged.” Our expectations are often shaped, at least partially, just by stereotypes.
Based on objective truths, my life in the US and my students’ lives in their camps could hardly be more different. I expected my trip to Lebanon to expose me to such a wildly different experience and culture from any I had ever imagined, and while it did make good on this expectation, what surprised me most was how much the same everything – or rather, everyone – really is.
Likewise to any new social situation, when I met my students, there were some with whom I clicked particularly well early on. As I got to know my student Mohammad, rarely did a day pass in school that I didn’t marvel aloud to him about how much he reminded me of my younger brother Tommy and how I thought they would get on so well.
My brother Tommy and my student Mohammad diverge in nearly every artificial label by which the world divides people. Perhaps the only objective similarities between them would be their gender and age. On a more personal level, though, I can name multiple, deeper commonalities that encapsulate each boy much more effectively than any artificial label: they both unsuccessfully (and endearingly) try to suppress their innocuous laughter at me when I make a fool of myself, but will still always eagerly help me learn (in Tommy’s case, when I am hopelessly out of touch with pop culture; in Mohammad’s, when I butcher the pronunciation of an Arabic word). As students, they both have a heartening drive to genuinely understand new concepts they can’t grasp. They both put effort and interest into internalizing, not just memorizing (Tommy will read anything and everything he can get his hands on; Mohammad will often do extra math problems outside the homework I assign). They both chat with their friends too much in class, but always have something friendly to say to everyone. These are just a few examples.
If we were to follow the example of society and condense these two boys into the Venn Diagrams of their labels, they’d have a gulf between them. As a collective body we must be retrained to strip away the synthetic checkboxes that undermine our shared humanity. Let’s reject the intimidating vastness of the disparities between labels such as, “stateless Palestinian refugee; UNRWA school student,” and “US citizen; elite private school attendee.” Let’s instead classify Mohammad and Tommy as two endearing 16-year-old class clowns, two high-schoolers who procrastinate with their friends after school and then stay up late making sure their homework is done right through and through because they love to learn.
Contrary to my expectation of feeling overwhelmed by such a different culture across the planet, I’ve been most struck by how small the world now feels. I see with genuine clarity that not even the most extreme and dissimilar of labels can undermine our more powerful shared humanity. At the core, does anyone on Earth really have such profound different primal desires than me?
I can never expect to fully understand the burden of the Palestinian refugee; I believe my life of privilege actually precludes me from being the most empathetic, sensitive, wise version of myself to offer to others. Still, I have a newfound understanding that disparity in privilege, oppression, or unimportant classifications dull in comparison to the most universal and inherent traits of humanity.
My new understanding of reality is that, in today’s world, labels cannot coexist with empathy. Labels are toxic vectors to convince us that there is “us” and there is “them.” Labels take the “human” out of “being.”