Magazine Feature

Check the Labels

A simple writing assignment sharpens students’ minds — and challenges their biases.
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Illustration by Danijela Dobric

I ask my students to go find a place on campus where they can comfortably sit down, a place where anybody associated with the school can go — so that means no offices, no restrooms, no club-rooms — and without leaving this spot to write for 30 minutes, non-stop, about everything they see, hear and smell. “You’re a video-camera with smell-sensors,” I tell them. “Record what you see, hear and smell — not what you think about what you see, hear and smell. Got that?”

It’s confusing, so I explain it again. I tell them it’s an experiment, that I’m not grading this but using it for them as practice for their upcoming research paper. I try not to explain too much, but I’m emphatic that it’s not about their opinions. They’re reporters, not interpreters.

Then I see what happens, which as variable as my classes and students are, is invariably fascinating.

When the students drift back to class, some of them amused and pleased, some of them annoyed and confused, I read aloud from as many of the observations as we have time for. (Other teachers might prefer having students read their own aloud, but I find I can get us to savor particular details just by reading clearly and well.) Some students who have never written anything interesting in my class will have written beautiful, artistic, coherent observations. It’s thrilling. We see the campus anew through their words — the trees, the litter, the birds, the flowers, the variety of the student body. Overhearing recorded conversations, we’re reminded of the pervasiveness of idioms and colloquial phrases we usually ignore. We call to mind those smells that are particular to particular areas of the campus. I try to resist stopping and commenting, but after a page or two I usually can’t hold myself back.

I read: “I see a Chinese guy” I say: “How does the observer know the guy’s ancestors aren’t from Korea?”


“How does he know ‘the guy’ is not American?”

“I don’t know!” says Ivonne, who didn’t write this.

“So why is he ‘Chinese’?”

The students sigh.

“How can you see ‘Chinese’?”

“Oh, come on,” says Daniel, who did write it. “You know what I mean …” He’s smiling. “I know you do. We all do.”

“I do — but I don’t want to! I don’t need or want my stereotypes confirmed. I want knowledge.”

“Knowledge?” says Prita. “How am I supposed to know someone’s Chinese?”

“Right,” says Daniel. “How am I supposed to describe him, then?”

“Yes, describe him — don’t label him.”

“I said he was Chinese, but I didn’t say he wasn’t American.”

I laugh and nod. “But if you were describing me, would you say — maybe after ‘old guy,’ ‘professor-type,’ ‘tall man with gray hair in green plaid shirt’ — would you say, ‘American’ or ‘Brazilian’ or ‘Brazilian American’?”

“I didn’t know you were Brazilian,” says Ivonne.

“I didn’t know I was either. I’m not.”

The class laughs.

Soo Young, a female student sitting to my right, in a beret, blue and white bold-striped shirt, black slacks, and open-toed sandals, raises her hand. “Am I American?”

“Okay, class, is Soo Young American? Or Japanese? Or Vietnamese? Or ‘other’?”

“If you’re born here,” says Ivonne, “you’re American.”

“Then you can’t become American?”

“Hmm,” says Ivonne, thinking that over.

“So, what is Soo Young?”

“Uh-uh, professor,” says Daniel. “I’m not sticking my neck out.”

Ivonne answers, “A human being, that’s all.”

“A safe guess,” I say. “But sometimes we know more than an animal’s species and can identify a human being’s national origin. Okay, so your parents are from Korea — right, Soo Young?”

Soo Young nods.

“But why do we say Soo Young is ‘Korean’ or even ‘Korean American’ and not ‘American’? Why, just because my skin is pale and my eyes are round, do I get to be American and Soo Young, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, is Korean?”

“Because America is prejudiced,” says Harvey, who doesn’t usually talk in class. “Because in America, face it … yeah, face it, if your face isn’t white, then you’re not American. If people are generous, it’s like you get to be a half-American.”

Illustration of a child in a tree singing with a bird

This is very troubling. We all sink into these prejudices. I often feel sunk myself by them. The only way out that I have found, the only way to overcome it, is to stick with what I like to call “Art.” Others might call my approach “Objective Observations.” If my students want to distinguish between people of different ethnic backgrounds, I want them to create something to show the difference.

And then, if readers can’t distinguish what somebody is, our sighing resignation doesn’t seem so bad. We accept that we don’t have enough information to know.

“I’m not even going to try to describe anybody by race, by nationality, by nothing,” says Jewel. “Everyone will just be male or female, young or old, tall or short.”

Harvey is in the mood for participation. Smiling, he says: “How you know somebody is female or male? You don’t always know.”

“So what are we supposed to do, professor?” says Daniel.

“Think of it this way: Does your digital camera label people?”

“It does!” says Harvey. “I got this program — it goes around in my photos on my computer and it finds faces and it labels them: ‘Grandma,’ ‘Grandma,’ ‘Girlfriend,’ ‘Ex-Girlfriend,’ ‘Brother,’ ‘Me,’ ‘Me,’ and my favorite, ‘Me’ …”

Prita asks, “It says ‘Girlfriend’ or it says her name?”

“All right,” I say. “So you see the problem we have with labels.”

Diana: “Isn’t everything a label? Aren’t all words labels?”

“They can be, but they can be judgmental or more or less neutral descriptions. But we know it’s a lot harder to describe someone if we stick to facts — observable, confirmable details. Notice the kinds of details that you notice.”

Diana: “So we’re just supposed to describe people? It’ll be like painting.”


“How are we supposed to know how old somebody is?”

“How do you show that in a painting?”

Diana: “Their skin — if they have wrinkles. Gray hair. I don’t know!”

“No, you do know. Out in the halls, out on the streets, we use lots of little details to tell us someone is old — as old as me or as your parents! We see how they walk, the way they move their hands — their clothes! — we hear the kinds of words they use; we hear vibrations in their voices. So collect the details that tell you they’re old. Yes, ‘old’ is a judgment word.”

I tell them that journalism, for all its limitations, is really quite wonderful in this, in that someone’s color is not mentioned in a story unless color or race or ethnicity is part of the story — and it almost never is.

This experiment gets us into these interesting arguments, and I’m pleased because they seem to me to be about artistic matters, which (and this is my prejudice) trumps political and sociological ones. That is, we know that in our culture and country color and race matter so much, but it’s more interesting to go at this like reporters or painters, where skin color is just tone; where if we want to mention someone’s ethnic background, we have to work really hard and know an awful lot about the person and their background.

So from the observations, when Nicole writes she saw “this Dominican guy,” I can say (or write in the margin), “How do you know he’s Dominican?”

Nicole laughs. “Professor, I know because I’m Dominican! It takes a Dominican to spot a Dominican. We have this way we talk, these ways we move — no,” she says, glancing at Harvey making a motion, “not like that. We move different from that. And we have these what-you-call-‘em expressions nobody else uses. And this dude I saw, he was wearing sandals without socks — so I know he wasn’t Puerto Rican, which would have been my second guess.”

“Have you ever been wrong, Nicole, in your instant detections?”

“Yeah. But usually it’s not my fault, like because their mom’s Puerto Rican and their pops is Dominican. Or they’re Dominican, but they grew up white — sorry, professor! — around a lot of … pale-skinned people” — the class laughs — “and it’s hard to see the D.R. in them.”

When a student from Russia spots a Russian, we discover that the details that they picked up on would not be readily apparent or meaningful to outsiders. I ask Oksana, “But how did you know at that playground the woman was Russian?” She explains: “She was having these earrings that Russian women have — from Italy, these designy things — I myself have two pair, by the way — and with dangles there. And then I heard her say something to her daughter in Russian.”

“But you didn’t write that down.”

“There’s so much to write down. So much things!”

Yes, the world is full of details. This assignment brings out what students of all levels can do. They describe as well as they can, with their own everyday words. Nouns and verbs naturally take precedence — and the adjectives and adverbs require facts rather than judgments. How happy I am that for an hour or two we are overwhelmed not by electronic overload but by sitting on a bench and trying to notice all the details of the world right there in front of us!

For the research project, I send them out into public spaces to observe. The rules are the same as we had on campus, except this time, the observation is for an hour. We discuss what “public spaces” means: no one can be excluded from that space (we argue about whether or not the public library is a public space, and we decide it is) except when no one can be in that space (parks in my city, for example, have “closing” times even when they don’t have gates). Is a private space that “everyone” uses okay? I usually try to dissuade my students from the subway, because besides needing the fare to get in, my students sometimes get suspiciously observed themselves there, and I don’t like putting them into uncomfortable situations.

This project is the most effective way I’ve found for students to finally get out into their own neighborhoods — into public parks, onto city benches — or to relearn and appreciate bits they used to know. Some are frightened about doing so, and I suggest to them that they bring a companion. (Later, we discuss how the companion affects the way the observer herself is seen.)

One of my favorite students of the last few years, Marcella Mohammed, ventured into Prospect Park for only the second or third time in her several years living close by to it. Marcella so delighted me because just as she described the Prospect Park trees and their colors, the yellows, tans, browns, oranges, she also described the skin of the people she saw. We were trees, or the trees were people. Anyway, there we all were, growing and alive.

After this hour’s work I read off the observations and make lots of marginal comments, bracketing off their unhelpful opinion words (fat, ugly, beautiful, tall, nerdy).

I ask my students to write about what the people walking by would have noticed about them. What were they wearing? (Marcella accounted for this too; her own hijab and those of her daughters were as natural and matter-of-fact as the leaves and bark on the trees, as the baseball caps on the heads of young and old walkers.)

Then I send them back to that very same spot — they must stick to the same spot, just as surely as landscape artists — for another hour. I don’t tell them that they might get bored this time. I tell them to do it again, but perhaps at another time or day of the week, and I ask for more details to clear up evaluatory vaguenesses in their earlier report (“a lot,” “really smelly,” “hardly any,” “always jumping around”).

The landscape is different the second time around. Trees have sprouted more leaves. The weather has changed! A scaffolding has gone up. The dog-walkers appear. The after-school children take over the previously desolate playground.

The focus usually narrows in the second observation. From the previous hour, when they noticed “a lot of garbage cans,” this time they count them: “There are 19 green barrel garbage cans between the playground and the handball courts, 12 on the east end of the park and seven elsewhere.” They know something! “There are 16 children — no, 17! — and four nannies (yes, I know, professor, ‘opinion word’) — all I’m saying is the women are much darker in skin-tone than the children they’re minding!” (This, I point out to Marie, would be a good point to research in periodicals. How many nannies are there in Park Slope? What are the demographics of nannyhood in New York City?)

The students’ final research projects involve not only reading about the area and returning to their spot to confirm or clarify details, but interviewing residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the sites they wrote about: Marine Park, Crown Heights, College Point, Roosevelt Island, Brighton Beach, the East Village. I want my students to have their own experiences through which to filter the observations, rather than the other way around. I want my students to see and know something, to trust their curiosity to be their guide to further research. I want them to be informed writers, to be Thoreaus rather than retailers of processed impressions and information.

They know something under their noses that always could have been known — but probably no one else in the neighborhood knows either. There is plenty of research material, mountains of paper and jillions of gigabytes, on New York City neighborhoods, but to my great satisfaction, my students discover that not everything out there is “known,” that in fact they themselves have recorded previously undocumented details. They learn that whatever they find in an article or book had its origins in some particular person having gone out and looked at and listened to and taken in the world with her senses.