Labels: Imprecise and Inaccurate

I’ve been telling anyone and everyone that “I’m Irish” for as long as I can remember. The problem with that construction is that I’m not Irish, I’m an American of Irish descent. Most people know what you mean, but that doesn’t make the expression any more accurate.

As I’ve gotten older, I often tell people that “I’m Irish Catholic.” Sometimes I add that I was educated by the nuns in grade school and allow them to draw their own conclusions as to what that means. In case you’re wondering what it means, I was taught by the Dominicans, who were the primary people in charge of the Inquisition. It’s been hundreds of years since the Inquisition, but looking back at the 1960s when I was a school boy, I can’t say their methods had evolved.

Why do I tell people I’m Irish? Well, first and foremost, I’m proud of my heritage. We’re the people of James Joyce, Samuel Becket, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, and Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula. James Bond is Irish (at least when portrayed by Pierce Brosnan), and of course, so are the Chieftans and Riverdance. And in the Dark Ages, Irish monks transcribed all the great literature of Europe, preserving it for later centuries.

However, when I tell someone that I’m Irish, I doubt their first reaction is to link me Yeats, or James Bond, or especially Riverdance. I’m not poetic, not a tall lethal spy, don’t have the moves to dance like that.

When I claim to be Irish, or more accurately Irish Catholic, I’m trying to use shorthand for my experience growing up with that heritage and that religion in America. Some people will hear Irish and think of green beer and the drunken bacchanalia that occurs every St. Patrick’s Day.

Yuck. I want no part of that.

Knowing all this should make me hesitate to label myself so quickly, but it probably won’t. People like labels. It makes it easier to discuss someone or something, no matter how limiting or distorting the label is.

What brings all this to mind is a recent flap in major league baseball. Torii Hunter, of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (talk about ridiculous labels!), has caused quite the controversy with his remarks in USA Today story: 

*         *         *       *

Fans look down from their seats onto the baseball field, see dark-colored skin and might assume they are African-American players.

But increasingly, the players instead hail from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico or Venezuela.

“People see dark faces out there, and the perception is that they’re African American,” Angels center fielder Torii Hunter says. “They’re not us. They’re impostors.

“Even people I know come up and say, ‘Hey, what color is Vladimir Guerrero? Is he a black player?’ I say, ‘Come on, he’s Dominican. He’s not black.’ ”

“As African-American players, we have a theory that baseball can go get an imitator and pass them off as us,” Hunter says. “It’s like they had to get some kind of dark faces, so they go to the Dominican or Venezuela because you can get them cheaper. It’s like, ‘Why should I get this kid from the South Side of Chicago and have Scott Boras represent him and pay him $5 million when you can get a Dominican guy for a bag of chips?’

“I’m telling you, it’s sad.”

*         *         *       *

I can’t claim to read Hunter’s mind on this, but I’m guessing that he was trying to encourage more black Americans to get into baseball. But it seems to me he’s slipped into racism with his comment that Vladimir Guerrero isn’t black. It seems as if “black” equals “African American” and that is somehow better than the Dominican but not black Guerrero.

Hunter’s throwing around labels, and that’s the trouble. He’s forgotten that the important thing about Guerrero in this context isn’t whether he’s black or not, but whether he’s a baseball player. Hunter’s chosen to define the label black very narrowly and created a racial issue where there shouldn’t be one.

The entire labeling quandary hits home for me: My brother-in-law is black. Oh, sorry, since he’s half-English (white) and half-Ghanaian (black), he probably doesn’t meet Hunter’s definition of the label for black. Then again, since my brother-in-law is a naturalized American citizen of African descent, he is an African American, although I doubt Torii Hunter would agree with me.

Fortunately, my brother-in-law is a great guy. His race and national backgrounds have never required a label. There isn’t a label cool enough to suit him.

Maybe the next time I’m about to utter the words, “I’m Irish,” I’ll emulate my brother-in-law and live beyond labels.

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