Label – “a classifying phrase or name applied to a person or thing, especially one that is inaccurate or restrictive.” (Oxford Dictionary on Lexico.com)
Labeling theory describes the process whereby society applies identifiers to people, which subsequently have significant impact on their social behavior. Simply stated, labeling theory highlights a perceived truth – that how others view you defines and carries significant impact on your behavior. The Oxford definition above highlights the problems inherent in this truth. Inaccuracies, or restrictions.
Once applied, labels tend to stick, especially when coming from multiple directions. We grow up in a world constantly pushing us through a revolving door of rhetoric designed to help us achieve our “potential”; but only if done in the right way.
Go to school, get a degree, get married, get a good job, have children – and so it goes. But those same sources tell us we can dream big, be whoever we want to be, achieve whatever we want to achieve, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE. Don’t compare your journey because everything happens for a reason and has a season.
Millenial. Lesbian. Black. Woman. Adopted. Athlete. Those are a few of the labels applied to me. Not BY me but TO me. I’ve often wondered why humans feel the need to define everything. Who we are and who we are trying to be will not fit in a box. I am not the same now as I was 10 years ago, 5 years ago, a month ago, yesterday, or even this morning. Life is marked by growth in every direction.
Solely defining me as a millennial cannot capture the fact that I possess an old soul. Being labeled as Black, will not lend insight into the fact that I am fluent in 2 languages, conversational in another and understand four. Athlete? I played basketball throughout school, but it should not shock people that a favorite hobby involves reading, and teachers and peers even now seem speechless when I list the genres I’m interested in and the works that I have read.
On a deeper level inside family, adoption by White parents does not subtract from my “Black experience”, particularly as a dark-skinned Black woman. It does not make me “not a real black person”, and ought not be something for which to feel sorry. And it ought not push an assumption that my birth parents were drug addicts, incarcerated, separated, or didn’t want me.
Yet each of these things (and many more) find their way to me, assumed and even forced upon me. Usually with some kind of pitying look. Or a pat on the shoulder as if to say, ‘Its ok, we already know YOUR truth.’
In 4th grade I was placed into the lowest reading group because of my race. It wasn’t until my mom showed the teacher my 95th percentile standardized test scores that the change was made.
Surface level attributions. What’s the point?
I refuse to stay inside anyone’s box. You might perceive me as any number of labels, but at the end of the day I am just me. ‘Who I am’ goes deeper than any “label” might describe. Give some deeper thought before you label – the labels you hear, and the labels you give out. People of different races, ethnicities, genders, religions, socioeconomic status, and all the other lines you might employ to define people… marinate on the impact. IMPACT is EVERYTHING.
If what’s happening in the world today isn’t an indicator of the horrific outcomes that come with labels, perhaps start doing the hard work of embracing this fact. We ALL have more work to do.