A few weeks ago, a friend of mine spoke passionately about his opposition to labeling people. We had been talking about differences between Republican and Democratic philosophies, and he objected to the whole concept.

Focusing on these differences was, in his mind, “labeling”, and he thought we all should move beyond labels and simply view people as individuals. He certainly didn’t want to be labeled, he said, nor would he label others.

I also have friends who think that racial/ethnic designations are offensive, unnecessary in this day and age, and potentially stigmatizing.

On the other hand, I have friends who proudly identify themselves as “Republican” or “Democrat” or “progressive” or “conservative.” And, of course, I know many people who proudly wear the label of “African American” or “Black.”

Is it ever okay to label people?  Should people label themselves?

Why do we use labels when describing people anyway?

In Reframing Change, we talk about the function of categorization.  The mind can only hold so many separate variables at a time.  So to manage all the information we are bombarded with and to simplify, we categorize.  We categorize chairs — armchair, rocking chair, red chair. We categorize dogs — terriers, cocker spaniels, collies.  In a similar vein, our brains are inclined to categorize people as well — short people, people from Alabama, children, red-haired people, Asians, Christians.

So why all this objection to categorizing people?  The objection usually comes when we suspect the categorization will result in stereotyping.  When we stereotype people, we ascribe value —good, bad, negative, positive — to the category.

I avoid tall ladder-backed chairs, stereotyping them as uncomfortable.  Now mind you, this really is a stereotype, because I have no recollection of having sat in one and feeling uncomfortable.  But this is how stereotypes work — we apply them willy-nilly to every object in that category without checking first if the stereotype is true for THIS object.

Further, chairs don’t normally suffer emotional, physical, or career harm from being stereotyped.  People do. A gay young man I know was ridiculed all through high school.  The label of “gay” became a stigma. He is still struggling to move past those cruel, painful memories.

So when is it okay to label people?

Given the harmful potential of labels applied as stereotypes, are there ever advantages to categorizing people?

I think so, under certain conditions. First, categorization is useful as long as the label is descriptive with no negative value imputed to it.  It might be helpful to know, for example, what percentage of a student body is female or college-bound or in a certain age group.  If the label is pejorative (“that bimbo”) or used pejoratively (“you know that she’s a LESBIAN, don’t you?”), then we are moving beyond mere categorization and into put-downs and insults.

Second, the categorization is useful if we recognize that any descriptions we ascribe to people in that category may not be true for ALL individuals. All people of Chinese descent do not use chopsticks.  All females do not want children.  Knowing how to check out whether a description is accurate or not for a particular individual is an important topic in and of itself and I may devote a future blog to it.

Third, the categorization is useful when it is preferred by the person being categorized.  Those who eschew labeling often fail to recognize that self-defined labels can be deeply meaningful and liberating.

When the Label Is Meaningful to the Person Being Labeled

The day after the conversation with the friend who objected to labeling, I listened to a radio interview on Bonnie Marcus’s marvelous show, Head over Heels on TheVoiceAmerica™ Talk Radio Network .

One of those interviewed was Lael Couper Jepson (www.SheChanges.com), a coaching resource for women. In the interview, Lael explained how she started her career identifying herself as a leader. She was given responsibility early and easily met the challenges. Then, she began working in male-dominated organizations and moved away from what had been so natural to her. As she explained:

It was about that time that I also started to identify with being a woman. I had become a mom at that point, I’m in my early 30s….So it’s like I looked down and I saw that I was this wolf in sheep’s clothing and I realized the effort that it was taking me to be something that I wasn’t, meaning that I was acting a certain way that took effort.  And more importantly, I was holding back so much of who I was and I was thinking way too much about what I was doing, what I saying.

The link that I made when talking with other women and hearing their stories was that we didn’t really identify as being woman leaders….

This was the turning point for her.  She began identifying herself as a woman leader, rather than as a generic leader, and through this identification, found her own authenticity and power. Implicitly, as a generic leader, she had defaulted to the dominant ethos in the male-dominated culture in which she worked. The result was that she found herself a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and “holding back” much of who she was.  It took effort for her to act while imitating that which she was not.

As she identified with her womanness — and all the self-descriptions and labeling this entailed — she came into her own and discovered her career path.

Within the span of two days, I listened to one person fervently declare that labeling people is detrimental and another who became liberated when she reclaimed a label she had disowned.

I have identified potential harm that can come from labeling people and some conditions under which it might be beneficial. But what do you think? Is it okay to label people? Should people label themselves?


Jean Latting

Filed under: bridging differences

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