Labels we use in society are useful to quickly identify and catalogue the information our brains process each day of our lives. However, these labels come with associations and expectations, and even if these predeterminations are positive, they still cause harm to the person who gets placed in a category.
They are inseparable from the perception of the person who hears them, and somehow inseparable from the identity of the person wearing the label. These words can inspire warmth and camaraderie, or they can be received with scorn and distrust. At times, when applied to the self, a label can be both a great source of pride and equally a profound point of shame.
A label is not what truly defines another’s core personality or potential. Often the labels we use are not very accurate, and we divide ourselves in to subcategories with words like white or Black. Neither are accurate descriptions of skin pigmentation and distract from the fact that we are all humans, members of the same species, Homo sapiens.
While there’s no biological marker which defines race, the social construct of race has been used as a justification of supremacy and division throughout all of human history, right up there with class and religion. At the same time, race when associated with a cultural identity provides for people an immediate point of connection with others who have common ground and share the common struggle of being a part of an oppressed group.
How wonderful that we have been met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress. –Niels Bohr
Physicist Niels Bohr notes that a paradox provides a way to see that there is not always a single way something exists, nor a single way that something can be perceived. He states, “Two sorts of truth: profound truths recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth, in contrast to trivialities where opposites are obviously absurd.”
In some ways, labels provide us with profound truths, wherein the opposites are both true. Race is a social construct and does not exist; on the other hand, race is a social construct and does exist. Scientifically, it doesn’t exist; however, race definitely exists as a point of categorization that has been used to create supremacy, hierarchies, slavery, war, and genocide. Those two truths should be maintained and recognized as they are valuable in combatting supremacy. Denying that race exists is to invalidate the very real struggles that people in oppressed groups face; however, to suggest that race exists as a scientific fact would be to say that someone from a specific race is always _________ (insert any descriptor here).
Even if the qualifier is positive, it imposes a standard that not everyone will meet. It promotes ranking. For example, if someone says that Asian people are good at math, it will cause individuals who aren’t good at math to feel inferior. It sets up a comparison which suggests that Asians are superior in some way to other races. Implying that race and math are related in an innate way is untrue and takes away from meaningful discussions. It’s a simple and lazy way to avoid exploring what cultural and educational factors contribute to academic achievement and allows people to absolve themselves of any responsibility to contribute to the society and environment or to stop contributing to systems that cause inequality.
Still, race (or any other category) is used as a triviality, a meaningless qualifier where the opposites are absurd. For example, people project stereotypes and dualities where none exist onto others to assume, for example, white people are trustworthy and Black people are not, or that Muslims are violent and Christians are benevolent. These false perceptions are meaningless and used to keep power structures in place that advantage one person arbitrarily and disadvantage the other.
When are labels unacceptable?
Labels shift perceptions. They are used as a way to dehumanize rather than describe us for any practical purpose. The farther a label is from a person, the more permission that person feels to dehumanize the bearer of that label.
For example, if a person is in a different country or speaks a different language, they’re not as real to the person who is comfortable with labels. Maxims like, If we are true patriots, then that means we put our own first, are examples of how these perceptions allow for labels to create an illusion of separation that permits us to view some lives as more important than others. These dualisms do not exist without a sense of a winner and a loser.
Perhaps this is why autistics are not allowed to represent themselves in science and the mainstream. We cease to become a commodity, and our value as cogs in a multi-billion dollar machine diminishes.
Labels also create in the minds of most people a stereotypical perception on how others should act, fostering inaccurate expectations. Labels are being used in our society as a tool to cloud real issues, creating a divide between perceptive (but not real) “opposites.”
In 1995, I heard the song, “Don’t Call Me White,” by NoFx. Since then, I have been thinking about the negative connotations associated with being white. The words ring very true for me. I’m living in a country that will claim all men are created equal, while at the same time practicing unjust and disproportionate use of authority and the (in)justice system against anyone with dark pigmentation– not because they have done something wrong, but because when the police officers began assessing the scene, they used a loaded label to identify people involved. In using these labels, we ourselves are contributing to the problem.
Inaccuracy leads to oppression. Labels paint an incomplete picture of a person, or a false picture. When we allow labels to have any weight or meaning in how we perceive another, we are always guilty of being complicit in oppression.
Do not call me white if you are going to give me a loan you wouldn’t give to a person of color. Don’t call me white if you’re going to ignore my expired registration but pull over the Black man behind me for the same thing. Don’t call me white if you’re going to give me the benefit of the doubt when I enter your store but fear that another man is going to steal because of his skin color. Don’t call me white if you assume I am going to laugh at your racist jokes.
Call me white when you are ready to admit that you stereotype people and have considered me to be better than someone else based on inaccuracies. Call me white when you point out some way that I have benefitted from people’s bigotry. But don’t ever call me white if you want me to be complicit with your prejudice.
Don’t call me autistic if you want to assume that I need your interference in my life. Don’t call me autistic if you want to make guesses about what I can or can’t do. Don’t call me autistic if it separates my individualism and autonomy from my neurological differences.
Call me autistic when you, too, are autistic and you want to establish common ground. Call me autistic if you want to learn, with humility, more about how autism is a part of what makes up my identity. Don’t ever call me autistic if you think you know what autism means.
Labels give permission to dehumanize. Once you attach a label to someone, you will miss out on the complexity of the human spirit.
When a police officer reports to an incident, having a preconceived notion of what is going on based on descriptive labels that have been provided, they have already decided upon a course of action and how much force they will be applying to resolve the issue to which they have been called.
For example, police are responding to a disturbance. An African American female is sitting on the floor in a crowded public facility with a child, awaiting an appointment. When officers arrive they begin to forcibly escort the woman out of the building, laying hands on her and her child, causing more of a disturbance than the woman sitting on the floor.
Sitting on the floor is not a crime, but it’s a behavior that is outside of the stereotypical norm. As the woman protests and objects, white onlookers automatically villainize her and pity her child. They make conjectures about what kind of mother she is. They assume she’s guilty of a crime.
Why were the police officers called? If the woman were white, her behavior would likely have been regarded with sympathy, maybe as someone with a mental illness or as a cry for help.
The people who called the police did not see an equal. They saw a nuisance, maybe even a threat. The police heard the woman’s description and evaluated the situation as hostile. Some people realized it was not fair, but they hid behind their illusion of “whiteness” because they didn’t want to lose their security in the social hierarchy that puts a Black woman under arrest for sitting on a floor.
A glaring example of how labels influence public perception that most people are familiar with is the United States of America’s most recent Supreme Court Justice appointee, Brett M. Kavanaugh. Many labels are attached to this man, none of them being the single attribute that defines him, but clearly the label of Conservative Republican was the one that influenced how people settled on a conclusion about his character. People on both sides spoke out for and against the accusations that surrounded his nomination.
From my observations, as a neutral person not beholden to
party loyalty, I could see that he had no business as a nominee, not because of
any of his labels, not because of the allegations being brought against him,
but for the simple fact that he is missing a key attribute required for being Supreme
Court Justice: he lacks nonpartisanism.
All the media outlets and people I know who argued and debated this nomination completely overlooked the most important issue: is he a good fit for the job? Is he dedicated to not letting prejudice and party loyalty interfere with the cause of Justice? Is he going to contribute to arbitrary loyalties which allow for supremacy to undermine the Constitution and its Amendments?
When we use labels to form opinions about others, we miss an opportunity to understand a person for what makes them an individual—for what makes them human. This stifles progress, too, because when someone is afraid to break away from stereotypes, they stifle their own potential.
Science and Truth are great equalizers, and when humans are concerned, there is one truth that is scientifically applied: no two people are exactly alike and there are no safe assumptions about them.