The Politics of Labels
Within communities that are institutionally minoritized, the debate about labels remains an unresolved one. Are labels a gift, or a curse? On one hand, labels help you use language as a tool to express who you are to other people. It can help you build community through mutual understanding and shared lived experiences. You can find refuge amongst those who share or understand the historical, cultural, and sociopolitical implications of your label. It can help you advocate for yourself when institutional powers are trying to silence you and render your struggles invisible.
On the other hand, labels make you an easy target. For instance, identifying as a part of a particular community might make you a valuable commodity for profit-making institutions. Your labels might increase your worth as an asset during the college admissions process, thus making you more marketable to the College and the College becoming more marketable to future buyers in the global education market. Labels might also come with historical baggage from the past that burden those who use them. That begs the question of whether using those very labels can incidentally link us back to our marginalization, thus reinforcing our “minority” status.
Some say labels are liberating, while others say labels are suffocating. We can think of labels as boxes that either provide you a useful set of tools or cage you in. If we assume labels are truly as confining as cages are, we must ask ourselves who built the cages. Is it we, label users, who have built these cages for ourselves to find shelter in? Or is it those who hold institutional power that have built it for our community? Are we simply identifying ourselves as who we are while also recalling the history of our structural oppression, or are we instead reinforcing our own oppression by simply describing our history?
Labels mark you as different from the norm. When you say you are Brown or Black, you are saying you are not White. When you say you are queer, you are saying you are not cisgender and/or straight. When you say you are disabled, you are saying you are not able-bodied. Are you simply describing yourself as different from the norm, or, by consequence, are you wearing these markers of deviance on your sleeve? Are you able to describe your whole identity as a full-fledged human being using labels, or do labels make it easier to reduce you to fragments of yourself?
When you choose to identify with a label, you identify as belonging to a particular community. You might find yourself having to reach certain expectations, meet specific conditions, and fulfill roles assigned to you due to your membership. It can be hard to negotiate your identity with those within your own community as well as others outside of it, especially when you are trying to figure yourself out. While labels can help you define yourself on your own terms, it is easy to get caught up in identity politics where labels may increase the gap between your sense of identity and self-awareness.
Expressing yourself using labels can lead to a binary division of the people you meet in your lives – they identify with the label too, or they don’t. They are either members of a given community, or they are not. Any group is a selection of people, thus inherently exclusive in its definition. Group polarization can be exacerbated by how hard it is to intuitively understand how another person feels without having been in their shoes. For us to better understand ourselves and others, it is very important to be open-minded towards different opinions during respectful conversations.
While having our experiences, thoughts and feelings be validated by others who understand can benefit our mental health greatly, we might otherwise find ourselves talking to people and consuming media that already confirm our thoughts and beliefs. Sometimes, we can spiral down the rabbit hole of identity politics due to its addicting nature, causing us to forget to take space for ourselves and self-reflect. Are we reinforcing others’ interpretation of our social identity by performing the role we’ve been assigned from our label, or are the labels that we use allowing us to exist as the most authentic version of ourselves?
Every single human being is much more complicated than the separate facets of their identity that come together and make them unique. It is important to not take the space that we occupy, that we are granted or that we are denied due to our identity for granted. If we take labels at face value, there are much more complicated questions that start to bubble underneath the surface. Are all the parts of yourself that you label like puzzle pieces that fit together to complete the picture that represents who you are? Or are they disjointed puzzle pieces that you cannot use to solve the underlying mystery of your identity?
Ultimately, we will have to negotiate who we believe we are with everyone else, no matter which community they belong to. To that end, I think it’s important to think critically about our own actions along with other people’s actions. They are not simply “others” but our friends, our classmates, our family, our professors, and our administrators. Unfortunately, throughout history, those who meet the societal norm have put us into categories because we deviate from the standard, but ultimately these categories do not need to define us. Even if language drives both the social forces of inclusion and exclusion, it can be used as a political tool to name social injustices in order to be able to speak out against them.
Who is to say we do not know who we are? Even though a large part of our sense of identity is moderated by social influence, we can still live as the most authentic versions of ourselves. With or without labels, we can take steps towards grounding ourselves in our sense of self. With or without labels, we can make an effort to understand another person’s perspective while also maintaining our boundaries. With or without labels, we can choose to act for the communities and causes we care about. At the end of the day, human understanding extends far beyond any barriers that labels may present. We cannot build bridges with only labels, but also human strength, resilience, and solidarity.