Validating, Not Dividing : The Case For Labels

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November 23, 2015

11:42 PM

There is an argument afoot that implores us to eliminate labels. Labels are irrelevant, it says; why can’t we all be Americans? Why can’t we all just be people?  Let’s talk about it.

First, we are all just people, and we all matter, but historically some kinds of people have mattered more than others. Certain arbitrary markers of superiority (i.e. whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, wealth) have facilitated the success and dominance of certain kinds of people (read: wealthy white cisgender straight males) while oppressing those who could not lay claim to them. At this point, we all know this, and honestly if you don’t, I want you to go take a long hard look in the mirror and consider that you may be white/wealthy/cis/straight/male. Are you? Okay.*

Certain arbitrary markers of superiority (i.e. whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, wealth) have facilitated the success and dominance of certain kinds of people (read: wealthy white cisgender straight males) while oppressing those who could not lay claim to them.

Yes, labels are used oppressively (racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ableism, etc.), but they can also be used combatively to counter oppression. Labels are valuable internally and externally – internally, when you take on a label, you gain a sense of community, history, solidarity and externally, you gain recognition from others who identify the same way, which further validates your experiences. A person who identifies as asexual, for example, gains a lot, including online communities, safe spaces to share their frustrations and joys and a general sense of validation, by being able to name their lived experience.

Labels also allow those of us outside of a given identity to recognize and respect the lived experiences of those inside one. For example, when a white person claims to be “color blind” regarding race, they are functionally erasing the history and struggles of people of color. Instead of claiming to be color blind, it’s important that we recognize that race has had and does have an impact on how people are treated. Failure to recognize others’ labels at this point in time does a lot more harm than good.

This is not to say that people’s identities should no longer matter, but rather that we should never treat someone differently because of how they identify.

In a perfect world, there would be no labels. Rather than being black, brown, white, gay, straight, bisexual, Americans, immigrants, extroverts, introverts, skinny, fat, what-have-you, we would all just be people, doing our best, bopping along. Obviously, we want to live in a world where people are human first, race/sex/gender/size/ability/class never. Obviously, we want to live in a world where discrimination is no longer a thing, where people are treated equally and respectfully. This is not to say that people’s identities should no longer matter, but rather that we should never treat someone differently because of how they identify.

But for now, labels have value. They validate; they build community. They should not be erased, instead eventually falling into disuse, when we live in the kind of world where they are no longer relevant.

Email Abby MacMillan at [email protected]

*No shade, just recognition that the less oppression you face, the harder it can be to recognize what others are facing.

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  • Abby MacMillan

(1) Reader Comment

  1. CMartel2
    November 25, 2015 at 12:00 AM

    I slap on my victim card daily. I feel strength emanating from it like a Tongan space reactor. No one understands me. You hear me?!

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