When Labelling People Is Good For Them

I came to social awareness (as opposed to, say, growing up, which is quite a different process) at a time when political correctness was just beginning, and–unlike other periods of time that I’ve mostly read about in old novels–labelling people was considered wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, this move away from labelling is generally a good thing, as this Psychology Today article points out. We are more than our skin tone, our body mass index, our age, our job. I have been labelled from time to time, and those labels make my skin crawl, make me–even now–want to jump out of my chair and shout “you don’t know me!” I am not where I live, or where I grew up. I am not my education. I am not my family of origin. I am not my hair colour. I am me.

Sometimes though I think we’ve taken things too far. Sitting on a plane on my way to the USA for the very first time it suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea what to call black people these days, and if I found myself suddenly in a situation, say, where a key was dropped at McDonald’s, and the waitress asked me who was sitting here before me and I said “A tall black guy”…is that offensive? Would I need to say “an above-average height African-American?” What if he wasn’t of African descent, but Carribbean? What if he wasn’t even American? Did any of it matter? Thankfully nobody dropped any keys at McDonald’s while I was in the US, so I never had to deal with the fall-out from this, and consequently I have yet to discover whether I would be frowned upon from describing a person as “black”. Or brown. Or, as my young son used to say when describing a kid in his class at school, “he has a brown face”. Notably, there are only two “white” people in my family – the rest of us are a kind of pinky colour.

I’ve been so aware of anti-labelling, of the risks one takes in using phrases like “black”, or “retarded” (which was in common usage when I was growing up, and wasn’t seen as a slur), or “crazy”, and it occurred to me that there is also a positive place for labels. I’m not a big, noxious word like “crazy”, but I’m a smaller, more precise word, like “introvert”. That label has helped me enormously, has helped me classify myself not just according to “I am me and I am unique”, which can be terribly lonely, but  part of a crowd, a subset of people just like me. I am left-handed – not just the only one in tennis class, but one of millions of people throughout the world.

If I’d only ever seen apples, pears, bananas and oranges, the first time I saw a custard apple, a mango or a paw paw I would think them crazy, different, wrong. (Actually this is precisely what happened when I was young – yes, even to mangoes. I still remember my first one). Labels help us classify. Stone fruit. Tropical fruit. Fruit. Without these labels we’d be less willing to try things, more inclined to throw them out and to not experience the good within.

Pineapple and apples (Wikimedia Commons)

Pineapple and apples (Wikimedia Commons)

I read an article the other day that helped me understand an old friend of mine so much better. He’d worn a million labels, some he’d fought against, some he’d embraced, none of which gave me any context at all to understand him better. I kept him there, metaphorically, my pineapple in a lifetime of apples, having to suspend all understanding when with him and define him,not as crazy, but as “unique”, “odd”, “different”. None of these labels are helpful, either, not in a real sense. They didn’t help me relate.

There were a few articles I read. One was about Asperger’s Syndrome. Another was about personality disorders. Another on different types of mental illness, and psychosis.

I’m not a doctor, but within half an hour of reading I could feel certain labels my friend has worn dislodging in my brain, and other, better ones take their places. He may never read these articles, and I may never discuss my thoughts about them with him, but for me finding those labels allowed my heart to expand, and helped me to love him better. He’s not alone, not unique as such. He’s not a not-apple, but a pineapple. I may have never met anyone else like him, but now I know that there are probably many others.

It may be nice to be unique, but there’s such a joy in finding one is not alone.

I’m all for labeling people, if that’s the result.



4 thoughts on “When Labelling People Is Good For Them

  1. Pingback: When Labelling People Is Good For Them | 2014 -The Year of The Horse

  2. I remember when my kids first learned about Jim Crow laws and civil rights. They couldn’t understand why people would treat others so inhumanely because of a difference in skin color. My daughter, disturbed to the core, kept asking questions about why, and what actually took place. Finally she asks, “And Auntie Tara never felt bad treating people that way?” Her Auntie Tara, my sister, is just as black (in blood) as I am, but has very pale skin, sometimes blue eyes, and blondish-brown hair. I’d never imagined before that moment that my kids thought she was white. And I didn’t correct the perception, it was too hilarious. I only said, “Honey, Auntie Tara wasn’t born back then.” Labels can sometimes divide, but can also, as you pointed out, create common ground between us, sometimes across unexpected lines :-).

    • Wow, wow, WOW Tanara, I’m gobsmacked by that story! It must have been so confronting for your daughter hearing that, especially if she’d (however inaccurately) labelled her own family members as black and white. Wow. I imagine she grew up thinking it perfectly normal to have family members in a variety of shades (which it is! I know heaps of “white” families with kids who tan a rich olive-brown in the sun and whose siblings simply burn and peal) and then to discover the world, her own country, was once divided on such a trivial basis as skin colour…
      You’ll have to blog about it some time. So many questions! I’d love to know what it was like for you and your sister growing up, did you feel that difference in people’s perception? Was the “white skin/black blood” thing ever a problem for your sister, or did she feel ostracised if she didn’t look like everyone else?
      When I was growing up, here in Tasmania, we were taught that there were no Tasmanian Aboriginal people left, that they’d died out after the genocide at the end of the 19th Century. Back then having Aboriginal blood was definitely something to be kept hidden, not talked about (Australian aboriginals weren’t given the right to vote until 1967), but now there’s much more support, and an encouragement, and a push to educate Tasmanian aboriginal kids (the descendents of those last full-blooded Aboriginies) about their heritage, culture and tradition, which is great. Anyway, all that to say that when I was growing up the “black” people in my community were generally whiter than I was. It’s taken a couple of generations for people (that I can see, at least) to be comfortable coming out and saying “I’m Aboriginal”, which is so sad that they had to deny their heritage.
      Anyway…that’s awfully long, and a bit all over the place. But thanks so much for sharing that story, amazing.

      • Your story peaked my curiosity as well, Megan. Now I’ll be up all night googling Aboriginal history :-). There goes trying to get to bed early (which never happens anyway, despite my best intentions), lol. Growing up had its challenges at times. Both of my sisters and I went through periods of not feeling black enough and trying to prove ourselves. I think we’ve heard every skin color and eye contacts joke out there ;-), and we put on several faces to try and fit in (the two most comical were the African attire phase and the “gangsta” phase). But my parents are pretty solid and not fans of people pleasing, so they confronted role-playing, and nixed many a friend who encouraged any. Plus, you learn pretty quick (if one’s smart enough to pay attention) that you can never please everybody. I was called racist by SOME whites when I refused to admit I had any other blood flowing through my veins, and a sell-out by SOME blacks when admitting I did. Finally I said to heck with it and decided not to let people’s perceptions or prejudices define me. Racially I’m many things (though predominantly black), culturally I’m black. I LOVE my people, and I LOVE being a descendant of such strength and grace, struggle and triumph. My identity, however, is and will forever be in Christ. Who I am in Him dictates my behavior, my views, my loves, my likes, my speech, etc. His is a label I wear gladly! We’ll have to talk more if we happen to see each other at another conference :-).

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