Labels wield a lot of persuasive power — intentionally or unintentionally.
I am not speaking of labels on the commodities (clothes, foods, etc.) that we buy, although in light of being an informed consumer, we should read those labels too. However, my reference is broader.
Too often as we go about our business on a day-to-day basis, we are not always in tune to how other labels — sociological, economic, political, racial, religious — affect our well-being, positively and negatively. Rightly or wrongly, we place people and things in “boxes,” or categories to manage and guide our conduct toward them, and determine many other decisions we make.
This phenomenon is perfectly normal according to sociologists. Labels, symbols, rituals, like laws and rules, provide order to our society. Such practices determine the nature and quality of any civilization. The lack of norms causes the collapse of a civilization. History is replete with examples of the rise and fall of civilizations. Therefore, labels and symbols, in and of themselves, are not bad.
How they are used can often be a problem, especially when we apply the label to a group or individual.
Many minority groups (and minority is a label), could testify about the impact labels have had on their ability, or lack thereof, to fully assimilate into society, and enjoy the opportunities and privileges afforded “non-minorities.” The minority label is not just confined to racial or ethnic groups. Minority labels may also pertain to beliefs, religious affiliations, political identity, i.e. conservative vs. liberal vs. independent, socio-economic status, etc.
Categorical and stereotypical labels can be harmful – very harmful. While they often provide a level of comfort and ease as one interacts in his/her environment, they often serve as blinders to the discovery of truth, and determining reality. While it would take more space than is available here to cover the many examples that come to mind, I will deal with the ones of which I am most familiar.
Perhaps one of the broad-sweeping impacts on African-Americans as a group has been the label that “Blacks don’t vote.” The perception is understandable based on the consistent low-voter turnout in many local and national elections. In addition, many candidates disregard the issues and concerns of African-Americans because of the perception that there will be low-voter turnout on Election Day. Consequently, what could be strong political leverage by one of the nation’s largest minority group is significantly minimized because both candidates, and African-American voters refuse to take the steps to change these limiting, even crippling, labels.
Whenever our heroes and leaders, whether athletes, politicians, business or religious leaders, fall from grace — because of illegal, and unethical behavior — there is a real danger that other labels may emerge. Hypocrite. Double Standard. We often see one set of rules applying to leaders, and another set of rules that applies to the rest of us. Turning a blind eye, meeting out justice to fit the crime is often not equally applied.
Labels affect our social standing, our economic and political power. If they are inaccurate, the affect is negative and long lasting. Many political and economic analysts argue that allowing certain stereotypical labels to go unchallenged often thwarts the efforts of many minorities to enter mainstream American politics and business.
Can you identify the labels assigned to you, your race, ethnic, or religious group? Are they accurate or inaccurate? If labels aren’t working for you, and having a positive impact, shouldn’t you take the steps to change them?
To ignore harmful labels is foolhardy.
What do you think?