Through Labels We Exist

I often see people complain about the human need to categorize and thus, label people.  It is often surrounded by people decrying how they do not see race, gender, sexuality, or any other labels. These people proclaim that they only see people, and do not see the labels that describe people.  Think of this thought exercise, it is a simple one, try to describe someone you know, anyone you know, without labels. Can you do it? I bet you cannot or, if you could, you forgot that words like nice, silly, goofy, annoying, spiteful, loud, and so on, are labels. In fact, another word for labels would be adjectives, words we use to describe a noun, like a person.  By removing labels, we effectively erase humans as the diverse and amazing animals we are. By removing labels, we silence ourselves, our histories, our experiences, and most importantly, what makes us, well, us. Without labels, we cannot exist, not in a world that honors people for their humanity anyway.

Removing labels is not only impossible, but dangerous and harmful. As mentioned, we would have to effectively remove adjectives from our vocabulary, or, never apply them to people. If we only applied them to non-human animals or objects, why should they be afforded language that shows how wonderfully diverse they are, but humans are not? To deny labels is to deny diversity. It is to deny human experience. In fact, to remove labels is vastly anti-human in a way. It removes the very things that make up each unique (another label) individual. In fact, I cannot hold a conversation about labels without using labels. They are not only ingrained into our language, but help define it. In fact, studying how other people use language and labels in other languages helps broaden our own sensory perceptions. Understanding how other people see color and define color allows us to broaden our ability to see colors and understand them.

Labels are important. They allow us to not only understand the world around us, but ourselves. Many of us struggle with what labels to apply to ourselves. We cycle through them, try them on like shirts, and discard the ones that do not fit. Some of us try on many more labels, while others may be perfectly fine with those assigned to them through others. I mean, some of us do take longer to get ready, no? Some people see certain labels as problematic, in fact, the only time this type of discussion is brought up is when people see labels as being such. For example, you never see people complain about being labeled as nice, kind, unique, outgoing, and so on. The only time people bring labels into question is when they are used to help describe and bring to light inequality. As I previously mentioned, the whole ordeal with “I don’t see race/gender/sexuality/etc”, is about saying how someone does not treat someone differently because they do not see difference.

There is power in labels also, especially reclaiming and defining yourself. Reclaiming words and slurs is a sense of empowerment. It is about taking labels once used to shame, oppress, and cause harm and using them as a sense of power. Identifying yourself and your labels has a power behind it. Our names, our most personal of labels, show this. When I changed my name, I shed the label and assumptions of others, denied that existence, denied that lie. I became myself, I adopted and formed my own person, my own deeply heavy label. I labeled my existence, my trademark. This extends to all self-claimed labels, whether they were applied and confirmed, or rejected and reworded. For the trans women who sheds her false male label for the beautifully perfect female one, for the queer person who sheds the notion of straight, and even the people of color who embrace the label of their color. Labels are powerful, as we use them to navigate the world and loudly proclaim, “THIS is me. THIS is who I am”. We define who we are, we bear our soul and our persons with our labels, we expose our humanity, our charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent with our labels.

My main concern is, how can you not see difference and yet acknowledge there is oppression? It is impossible. To acknowledge oppression is to acknowledge differences among us. Difference is not a bad thing. The only time difference is a bad thing is when it is used to justify the oppression of people. For example, being labeled one way does not inherently mean a negative thing, it is when people use that label as a negative thing to oppress and marginalize people, that a problem occurs. So, people react in a number of ways and one of those ways is to remove labels entirely, as opposed to question the system that justified making the label such a way. Now of course, certain labels are automatically negative, ones that are negative words, such as mean, nasty, cruel, and so on. However, identities are never inherently negative (unless actively harming another). For example, mentally ill, queer, trans*, and so on, are not inherently negative labels. How these labels, and thus, identities, are viewed though, exposes the relatively negative reaction to them. The reactions are what the problem is. We must address reactions, both systematic, implicit, explicit, institutional, and social, on all levels.

Labels are made with words, which have power. Words have the power to create, destroy, imprison, and free. Labels have the very same power. We deny this power by denying labels, expelling them from our lives. Though, we can never entirely do that. We label our friends and ourselves on a daily basis. We label our existence, our history. We label everything we touch. Labels are how we communicate, how we share meaning, how we connect. Without labels, we would not have our support groups, our families, or our friends. Without labels we would have a drab world, where nothing means anything, where no human is anything more than the species they were born into. We would not be mothers, brothers, aunts, siblings, teachers, instructors, writers, friends, enemies, queer, advocates, fighters, we would be nothing. Without these labels, we share no meaning. Without labels we share nothing of ourselves. Without labels, we are nothing. So how can something so deeply impactful, so deeply meaningful, be so apparently harmful?

When we force labels upon others, we deny them autonomy and the right to label themselves. Labels only become a problem when force becomes the focus. Force and denial. Thus, the problem lies not in the labels, but in the need to force labels onto others. For example, forcing the label of female onto someone like myself, who is not female by my own right. While people may share bodies similar to mine and identify as female, I do not. I have the right to label my body as I please. My vagina is male, while some other vaginas may be female. I am male, while some bodies similar to mine may be considered female. In fact, some bodies like mine may not even share the same labels at all. Our bodies are our own, just as our identities and labels are.

Labels are not the problem. In fact, the want to deny the power of labels floors me. Why should we deny our diversity? Not just our diversity, but the very essence of what makes us human? Makes us individuals? Are we not just individuals? We are not of one mind, one mass, floating in an orange miasma. We are individual bodies, with individual souls, individual lives, and individual experiences. To deny labels is to deny these very things. We navigate the world with labels. Labels are not the issue, prejudice is. To blame the very way we bear our souls and expose ourselves and lives, while ignoring the bigger picture, is problematic. We need labels. Without them, we are nothing.


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