He wore his favorite jeans, soft with wear, in contrast with his white button down shirt, chafing at the collar. He almost raised his arm to ease the discomfort at his neck, but it was safer to stay still.
There was nothing to differentiate him from the men blocking his way, except for the shoes. They wore sneakers. He wore his old dress shoes. And his shirt was wet with perspiration.
And they had machine guns, all pointed at him.
He could see it in their eyes, hard, calculating—are you one of us, or one of them? Friend or foe? There was no way to tell. Until he opened his mouth and his speech pattern gave him away.
Here, the label, friend or foe, was a matter of life and death. The word “stranger” would mark him as a target.
James was black, beaten to death, Jamal was a Muslim, attacked in broad daylight, Kelly was raped, just because she was a woman, in the wrong place a the wrong time.
Labels, whatever they may be, dehumanize, sometimes evoking violence.
If the man at the roadblock were given a chance to tell his story, of his background, his family, and his potential killers were to listen, he would no longer carry the label of stranger.
In most cases, the “wrong” label may merely lead to suspicion.
Fortunately, my label as a mathematician often evokes glazed looks, not violence. And at social occasions, if I add the label weaver, disinterest sometimes transforms into curiosity. And the curious more often than not, ask to hear the rest of my story.
I am not only a mathematician and a weaver. I am also a loving mother, a textile enthusiast, a thriving brain injury survivor, and an award winning author. But however many labels I carry, they only mark the beginning of my story. If you want to know me better, you need to listen to my stories, and I have many. About my love of teaching, my textile collection, my book about ethnic textiles and my memoir of recovery from brain injury, my family. Some I have already told, but most have yet to emerge.
And if you tell me your story, about your journey through childhood , your family, your growth, your life, I will listen.
We need to communicate, so we can connect and shed the label of stranger, so we can become friends.