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.

 

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