Unlearning Oppression (Lesson 13): Stop the Labels!

Everyone likes to be called by their name. Almost no one likes their name to be mispronounced, changed or shortened by anyone other than their immediate family. And yet, so many people impose egocentric perspectives on our names. Worse, many people in our society openly express outrage, discomfort and blatant bigotry against people with Non-white names. This practice of Othering impacts most immigrants, Indigenous people and African Americans, who use naming as counter-cultural reclaiming mechanism for self-valuing: After Slavery, wherein most black people were given names by slaveholders, Black people collectively have reclaimed naming rights. Essentially, I want you to “Say my name.”

A temporary sign, labeling those allowed to walk on the street. The sign appeared for two days before disappearing again.

And still, we have even bigger problems than that: As a society, we are so comfortable with the status quo, we’ve forgotten the basic respect that begins with learning our student’s name. Labeling is pervasive in the workplaces, classrooms and interpersonal dynamic spaces like the Black Lives Matter Human Rights Movement. Even in smaller groups, like an email list, people resort to acronyms and other inventive labels to avoid saying individual names. Unfortunately, this is not a universal practice–White People are excepted. That said, large groups of us are lumped together, unnecessarily: For example the new label BIPOC. Such labels are a product of White-Anglo Saxon hegemony that dictates which names will be said aloud, and who gets a label. I don’t want to be consolidated into a convenient group. I want to be seen as I am.

Lesson 13: Practice learning and using individual names for all the people in your community. Avoid lumping people into groups when you can relate on an individual, personal level.

It’s time to drop the labels. Let the individuals in your social, neighborhood, church and work networks identify themselves. Take the necessary time to be in community with those closest to you. You’ll find it’s not as difficult as you imagined and that when you take the time, people will appreciate your authentic curiosity and willingness to learn.

“A flower grows in compost.”

“We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.” ~Audre Lorde