Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

labels ~

Each year, in the summer graduate seminar I help direct, we do a roundtable about the cultures students bring with them into our classes. We try to invite different perspectives, highlighting cultural and social differences that may not be familiar to the teachers who attend. Today was that roundtable.

Listening to the four panelists — an elder from one of Oklahoma’s 39 federally recognised tribes; a lesbian undergraduate from a nearby private university; a professor of developmental writing, with a background in special education, and a professor and dean emeritus from Oklahoma’s historically black university — reminded me of what seems an innate human need to ‘label’ things. And people.


Many years ago, a beloved professor told me a story about post-war Japan. American surveyors were working w/ Japanese surveyors to map the country for post-war aid. But the Americans & the Japanese kept coming up w/ different distances between points. Nothing seemed to work, so finally an American surveyor followed a Japanese team on its survey.

The Japanese carefully measured from their starting point to the outskirts of a small village. They then circled the village, taking up their measurements on its opposite perimeter. The reason? The racially and linguistically identical Burakumin,  who lived in the village.


Did you get that? The racially & linguistically identical Japanese? Some of whom may well have been down-graded from samurai to eta (which means ‘filthy mess’) simply because their samurai was killed. While others were labeled for doing critically necessary work  — leather tanning, for instance, in a culture where armour was made from leather…

It’s not new, labeling. And it’s never been rational. Labels are windows into our fears: what we worry is ‘catching,’ what we need to feel superior, who’s new kid on the block, or just different. A kind of ‘green monkey syndrome,’ from the (mythical?) experiment where monkeys tore a fellow monkey to pieces after its fur was coloured green. We fear that which taps into our own internal nightmares.


Tetsuya Watabe / kamimodelAt the roundtable, the professor emeritus offered me consolation when I confessed my frustration w/ colleagues who continued in racist and homophobic behaviours. “They’ll change,” he assured me. “In the meantime, we’ll go on educating folks.”

So I offer the Burakumin, as an example no weirder than a society that hates and fears based on religion, that stereotypes based on skin colour, that continues to believe difference is threatening. While I try to figure out how to wait for the changes Doctor Darnell promised me ~

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