embracing labels

A couple of months ago, child star Raven Symone did an interview with Oprah in which she stated that she didn’t want to be labeled bisexual or African American. That set the internet ablaze because she has openly stated that she is attracted to both men and women, and at least by some people’s naming system, she is African American (however, this last issue would take an entirely separate conversation to delve into).

The interview got me thinking: What’s so bad about being what you are, owning it, and calling it something?

Labels are simply descriptors—words we put to things so that we can explain them; it’s simply human nature to classify things. We communicate through words, and for the time being, we have only the words we know until we’re exposed to more. For the sake of this article, I’m focusing on labels that are not immediately derogatory because of course it’s not okay for someone to use a slur against you.

With that said, our perception of an event trumps the actual intention behind it, so who gives a word its negative power?

The labeler, or the labeled one who shuns the name they’re given as though they’d rather be anything but that? If we learned to embrace our labels, would that impact the way others view them?

It’s true, most people don’t want to be labeled. But have you ever noticed that people say, “I don’t want to be labeled,” typically only when that label places them in a minority? Using Raven Symone’s interview as a framework, the actress says she doesn’t want to be labeled or called “gay,” but rather “a human who loves humans.” 

She also stated that she’s, “…an American. I’m not an African American; I’m an American.” Again, the sociopolitical history of racial identifiers, particularly in the Black or African American community, is far beyond the reach of this article, but Raven Symone’s argument against labels follow the model of most others: It isn’t that she doesn’t want to be labeled; it’s that she wants a label that comes with inclusion to a larger, possibly more favored group.

Now, perhaps some arguments regarding the problem with labels are with the particular choice of words (e.g. African American vs. American), and in ways, I appreciate what Raven Symone did here.

While she rejected one choice of words, she offered another in its place.

Language is constantly evolving. If we want to be identified more accurately, we have to make the effort to share new and more preferred ways of describing ourselves because when we choose to shun some labels, we can end up marginalizing the people who identify with those groups—and isn’t marginalization what we try to avoid in labeling ourselves in the first place?

While we personally might not want to call ourselves something in particular, there’s really nothing wrong with others wanting to find words to describe us, and maybe the key lies in changing our perspective. If someone is seeking a way to know or discuss who we are, that means they’re investing their interest in one way or another.

Other arguments regarding labels are because of their connotations.

For instance, someone might reject being called “a jock” because it comes with stereotypes such as a lack of intelligence, arrogance, among others. However, would it be more beneficial if we instead tried to reshape those stereotypes?

You may have experienced an instance where someone said, “I used to not like [insert any group of people], but you’ve changed my mind.” Impacts such as those positively affect our microcosms, and smaller circles like our families, and social groups make up macrocosms like our neighborhoods, our state, our country, or even the world. If we all worked to improve what we can in our immediate reach, wouldn’t it be possible for that to amount to change on a mass scale; even if that change comes farther down the road than we imagine?

The origin of my name means “bitter,” but that’s an inaccurate description of who I am. As with most of our names, they were given to us at birth, and from there it was up to us to create the true meaning behind that label. My name is a small facet of who I am, and so are the words that someone might choose to call me. If they were all gone, I’d still be who I am.

Despite our titles or classifications, we have the power to make our own imprint on what they mean, and perhaps the first step is embracing them as they are, and grooming them thereon.

Do you think labels have a place in our society? Sound off in the comments.   

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