Yesterday I read a great post written by Kelly Wickham (aka Mocha Momma) “Labeling Children: What’s the Big Deal” which sparked some interesting conversation around people’s thoughts on labeling – people. It also frustrated me some because I think when people are objecting to labels being used for people what they really object to are negative labels or labels that limit people because of how other people apply them. Labels are actually an integral part of communication and language (both written and spoken). Without attaching labels to people, things, places, diseases, animals, behaviors, races, and emotional responses to stimuli – we would be incapable of understanding each other.
Let me tell you what labels someone might use to describe me to you and what they might tell you about me:
Woman – you can expect I’ll have a vagina and other lady parts that may have a bearing on my life experiences
White (or Caucasian if you want to be more formal) – this rules out a whole lot of possible family heritages – most likely I’m of European descent, it tells you to expect a light skinned person which allows you to create a visual idea of what to expect of me
Middle aged – this tells you I’m probably between my 40’s and 60’s which tells you something about the time frame in which I grew up which gives you an idea of what cultural influences I may have experienced
Mother – this tells you I have given birth to or have adopted one or more children and from this it’s fair to assume I have some shared experiences with other parents
Overweight – fact. I have a large body. This information is not negative in itself – it is not a value judgment unless you make it one – it’s part of a useful physical description which gives you an idea of my size.
Medium height – again – this is a useful description of my physical body.
Writer – indicates that I have an interest in language (whether technical or creative or both) and probably like reading too. It tells you something about how I like to spend my time. Maybe I drink scotch all night and hang out in hotel rooms with prostitutes while writing the great American depressing novel – or maybe I’m an academic – whatever – you DO know I’m into words.
Wife – I’m taken. I’m in a relationship with someone that I at the very least intended to last a long time and intended to be committed to. OR maybe I just married for a green card. I have a partner – that’s what that tells you.
Smart – whether by nature or effort or both – I’m awake at the wheel. I probably have some critical thinking skills and understand some abstract and complex concepts and carry on in depth conversations about things I’m interested in.
Politically liberal – I’m most likely a democrat or part of the green party. One thing this tells you for sure is that I’m not a Republican. I’m probably interested in social programs for those in need, am most likely pro-choice, and probably care a lot a bout civil rights.
Vegetarian – this is a label that lets you know immediately that I don’t eat meat.
Feminist – indicates that I’m a man hater. Just kidding. But if you are a person who sees feminists this way then that says something about YOU, not me. This label says simply that I care about civil rights specifically for women, that I believe that women are of equal value as men.
Mentally ill – this is a fact. It’s also a label that people still tend to be wary of. It’s information. Minimally – my brain does not function optimally which affects the relationship between my brain and nervous system and body. Maximally – I may experience some real challenges in my life and knowing this may help you to know why I might seem different to you.
Major depressive disorder – more specifically – this label will tell you that I struggle with chronic depression that is not being caused by a singular event in my life but is caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain which results in recurring depressive states.
Generalized anxiety disorder – another specific label. It means I experience anxiety out of proportion to the real risks at hand. When you hear that I have an anxiety disorder this explains why you find yourself wanting to tell me to “stop worrying so much” every single time we have a conversation. This explains why I am not able to stop thinking about that giant leaning tree in my back yard even though an arborist has already said it won’t fall on my house while you are satisfied that it won’t fall.
Obsessive compulsive disorder – this indicates a specific type of anxiety that -thanks to labeling behaviors – lets you know that my brain has issues with obsessive thinking which also manifests itself in compulsive behaviors like never sitting with your back to a room full of people or having to match up the number of drinks you have to the number of shows you watch in an evening or doing things in a very specific order. You knowing this about me prepares you for such quirks as these that I might have.
Phone phobic – don’t expect me to call you unless there is no other possible way to reach you. Even then, I may just wait a year or more to contact you if that’s the only way to talk to you. So if someone tells you I’m have a phone phobia – is this label hurting me? Is it boxing me in? Jesus, I’m not that fragile! And if I stop being phone phobic then I can correct people who haven’t stopped using this label on me.
Atheist – Damn it! Why should you call me an atheist just because I don’t believe in God?! Why must you box in my spiritual beliefs? You are obviously trying to oppress me by using that word. Maybe I don’t believe in any deity – that doesn’t make me an atheist! (Except that IT DOES, because that is the actual definition of “atheist”) Why should a person object to their being a specific word that describes their set of beliefs? If having a single word to encapsulate your basic beliefs is so bad – is it also bad to have those set of beliefs? Are you trying to keep your beliefs a secret from everyone? Does having a set of beliefs that many people share with you make you want to ditch those beliefs because they’re too popular now and you are not a person who believes anything that other people are willing to also believe?
There are so many other possible labels you could attach to me that would help describe who I am as a person and where I come from and what I look like – all labels that help you understand in shorthand what to expect of me. What is wrong with that?
The problem with labels is when a label restricts a person’s rights or prevents them from having opportunities due to people’s prejudices. Prejudices against people with mental illness, for example, or against people of a certain race or gender. Calling someone Asian isn’t a negative label unless you are a bigot. Each of us as individuals takes labels and imbues them with our own judgements and our own limitation of thought and understanding. It’s not labeling people that’s the problem – it’s how those labels are used.
It is my personal responsibility to use labels only as general guidelines. People are more than the sum of their labels. It’s my responsibility to treat people as individuals who may bust out of my general perceptions at any time and my responsibility not to let any label cause me to limit another person’s rights.
It’s also my responsibility not to let my own labels restrict my growth or become excuses to hurt others or myself.
Labels are absolutely necessary to communication between people. You may think you don’t like them or use them but you label people every day of your life. What you don’t like are negative labels. But please understand that the only way you will avoid labeling people is if you never describe them with words. Nouns are labels: prostitute, lawyer, child, father, sister. Adjectives are labels: fat, short, silly, happy, depressed, contagious, effete, jocular. Try communicating effectively without nouns or adjectives.
You can label me all you want and I am comfortable with it. Your perception of me will necessarily be different than my perception of myself so you will choose different labels than I might.
The only time I’m going to fight labels is when they are being used to prevent me from opportunities unfairly or when labels are used with ignorance to restrict my civil rights.
Lastly, with regard to Kelly’s post, the use of the word “gifted” in education is not something I’ve thought much about until she brought it up. My own son has been called gifted many times by teachers though he actually failed to make the gifted program by 1 percent on his tests (or something like that). When used in a general way I take it to mean that he is academically further along than is generally expected at his age/grade. I don’t read too much into it. I can see from her examples how that label can be applied in a way that ends up limiting a child or excusing them from responsibilities they shouldn’t be excused from. And in those examples either the school or the parents are the ones who are putting too much emphasis on the label without allowing the kids themselves to grow beyond it or to see that while they may be “gifted” in one definition, that definition is perhaps not accounting for other important factors that need to be considered when deciding how to educate or parent them.
I don’t know if my child is truly gifted or not. I do know that he’s different from most of his peers and identifying and labeling those differences has been deeply important to us in figuring out how best to help him have both a positive school experience as well as a positive social experience outside of school. Without those very specific – potentially limiting or damaging – labels we would still be floundering around – unable to help what we are unwilling to acknowledge.
For me and Max labels have been a necessary key to improving our quality of life. Just because those same labels could be used against us by ignorant employers or by ignorant “friends” doesn’t reflect poorly on the label itself or the individuals who wear them – it reflects poorly on those who abuse them and use them to restrict and hurt us.