Letters from TZ

Only cows were made for branding

Last week, I read a news report about a proposal to “label” HIV positive students. This was to be a literal labelling with name tags and all the rest of it, just to make sure that everyone was aware of everyone else’s status. Why? Because people need to know that you have HIV before they even know your last name. Apparently, the ‘no-stigma’ campaign didn’t register for some but I am happy to report that the proposal didn’t get beyond the page.

As ridiculous as forcing a person to announce their HIV status may sound, there is something to be said for being honest. I applaud the folks behind this labelling movement for being truthful about their biases. At least they are not hypocrites like the rest of us.

We all have prejudices and that’s the honest truth, but some of us are better at hiding them than others. Just the other day, I found myself at the centre of a professional argument with professional people, over the qualities of inspirational women. “That one? She moves around with young boys. And that other one is corrupt. This one is just a pretty face, what has she done, really? And that other one got all her money from a sugar daddy,” someone said. I say someone, but what I mean is ‘some man’ because when men define women, especially women of influence, they will usually classify them based on their good looks (or lack thereof) or who they have had sex with. It is probably some Darwinian attempt to balance the scales of power so that women remain where science intended – on the weaker end of things.

That notwithstanding, the urge to label others is irresistible, especially when the brand is low-grade. Making someone out to be worse than you are is a simple, if self-deceiving way, to make yourself feel better. So maybe you have a rich friend, but people say she made all her money on her back. She’s a gold-digging, slut, and you’re better than that. You have another friend who just married a minister’s son, but he only married her because she’s mixed race. If it were not for her skin colour, no one would look at her twice. She traded her beauty for a fancy wedding ring, and you’re better than that. Maybe your colleague just got a promotion at work. But she’s always sucking up to the boss. He promoted her only because her response to “Jump!” is usually a subservient, “How high?” She’s an incompetent, unqualified ‘bum-kisser’, and you’re better than that.

But perhaps it’s the generic, cookie-cutter labels that seem to be the most damaging in our usage of them. The kind that must come with a ‘just’ in the front, as if to justify their application. She’s just a woman. He’s just a politician. She’s just a cleaning lady. He’s just a watchman. She’s just a kid. He’s just an errand boy. He’s just a waiter. She’s just a hairdresser.

Whatever the case, labels are seldom a true representation of the truth. They are little more than lenses we use to look at the world in the way we want to see it, not the way it is. Africa for instance is a continent rich in resources, human and otherwise. Africans know that. But many Americans think Africa is a country – and a poor one. More widespread is the labelling of women as ‘loose’ because they are alleged to have had multiple sexual partners. Never mind the men they were having sex with. In sexual matters, men always come out on top. A promiscuous man is a man’s man, but his women are either ‘conquests’ or whores.

A lot of these labels have been around for a long time, so long that we either accept them or ignore them. There are not many who have challenged them. For many of us, the only attempt to distance ourselves from the labelling system has been to remain ‘label-less’, when instead, we could have labelled ourselves, and spun our very own brand image.

With all the developments that have been made in HIV and Aids research – and all the treatments available – the disease has become more about image than illness. That someone would want to force students to publicly identify themselves with it is therefore, seems to be more about appearances and personal prejudices than public health. Labels are always about ‘them’, it’s time you made them about you.