English Studies

(Un)written Labels

Unwritten Labels

Labels are infinite and can hold an immense amount of power if we let them. Some of the labels that have been put on me and used against me are the following: DACA-recipient, Latina, woman, lesbian, and many more. I shy away from many of those labels for the sole purpose of taking back the power to identify myself the way I want to. The way in which I identify myself never includes the label “lesbian.” Instead, I always state I am a human being that may like other human beings. In my family’s culture back in Mexico, the label “lesbian” holds a negative connotation. In popular culture in this country, “lesbian” implies a certain lifestyle and specific characteristics that society expects for that person to follow. Now, if I am labeled as Latina and as being part of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) people suddenly only see me as what those words together tell them. To people, the relation of Latina and DACA, it suggests that English must not be my first language, that I struggle with constructing complex sentences, or that I simply struggle in school overall. There had been times when I was reduced to that and forced to represent a culture that I know nothing about. Labels can hold so much power and I became increasingly more aware early in my undergraduate years. People do not ask themselves why such words alone or together provide racially driven misconceptions to them which is a symptom of an even bigger societal problem. Going to events always means I am mislabeled and that creates misconceptions about myself and my background.

Addressing discriminatory incidents entails the awareness of the power labels and stereotypes hold. Many individuals of groups considered as minorities often are labeled within minutes (or seconds) of being noticed because of their skin tone with what they have to offer. Intersectionality can empower or diminish an individual, but society becomes the indicator of that. There is a formation of double consciousness that is learned from a young age. Double consciousness, coined and introduced by W.E.B. Du Bois in his autoethnographic work The Souls of the Black Folk, is a term that explicitly details the internal struggle and conflict that is often experienced by minority groups within an oppressive society (1903). This term gives a name to the action of looking at oneself through the eyes of others and the way they perceive an individual to be, thus, making it difficult and near-impossible to develop a sense of self.

Unwritten Labels

Double consciousness surrounds lives of minorities; co-workers, friends, acquaintances, and others would require for an individual to belong to a label that would make sense in their minds based on stereotypes. Taking double consciousness a step further and analyzing labels and words that are used to segregate, stereotype, and racial profile, led to the examination of these incidents through the critical theory of structuralism. It would serve as an outlet to analyze how both the behavior of a collective and the behavior of an individual stems from the underlying structures within society and the systemic biases it was built on. Comprehending the history behind the label is crucial in learning how the continuation of such identifiers will perpetuate racial disparities in multiple aspects of society.

Labels are not just labels; Ferdinand de Saussure delves deeper by stating that a word is a linguistic sign, a word, that is made up of two different parts: the signifier, the physical existence, and the signified, the concept (Du Bois 1903). The web that the sign is intertwined with is also important in the way it is perceived and the way a person is then perceived. With those words, an individual is no longer a person because those signs come before addressing them as a person just how Atkinson’s name was not identified. The color of my skin often becomes my sole identifier with people assuming my personality based on stereotypes. The marker of “black” or “brown-skinned” can have many signifiers or connotations but has a negative connotation engraved within society.

People of color experience double consciousness before they even know there is a technical term to describe it. The concept of double consciousness becomes universal and instills fear in the hearts of many, especially when dealing with law enforcement. When discussing these situations, society should not limit one’s humanity and identification to their race and gender through a variation of labels.

VAriasVanessa Macias Arias
Associate Student Representative, Midwestern Region, 2019-2020
Phi Upsilon Chapter
Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago, IL


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    • I say this as an African American man in the south. I just wonder why with all the brilliance around us and within us, why are the simplest things the hardest for us to grasp? Thank you for sharing your story.

  • It all boils down to our competitive society. A level economic playing field eliminates the need for differentiation. Note that for every negative label, there is an opposite that is often assumed and sometimes openly lauded that allow members of the ruling elite to belong. We will only be able to stop sorting people by labels that effectively replace the old class labels when we stop competing for dignity and equality economically.

    I don’t mean we all should be rich, but we would be a whole lot less dissatisfied with our places in life if we didn’t have to struggle and sacrifice so much just to get by. We are effectively indentured to our employers, convinced that we should be grateful that we have a job. That idea, alone, diminishes our value to the point of servitude. When did employment cease to be a mutual agreement?

    We have convinced ourselves that individuality and freedom are signs of a prosperous society when the opposites: community and social collectivism, made the success of our species possible.

    Nobody ever labeled me as anything but a straight, white, American (of Scots-Irish descent), Male. But that comes with its own heavy load. I grew up one of two sons raised by a single mother in a time when single motherhood was socially frowned upon. We were dirt poor.

    Did my education, my economic and marital prospects benefit from my labels? No. I’ve struggled all my life with feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. I’m here because I earned a spot in grad school. But I still have those feelings because of the expectations that my labels put on me despite my troubled childhood as the son of a mother who could not attend our church, the extreme disadvantage of poverty (and the refusal of society to see it because we are white it just wasn’t possible) and later, the general dismissal of the arts as worthy life pursuits. My degrees are routinely equated with basket weaving and my experiences as a child minimized because of the color of my skin.

    While I may be a defacto member of the ruling class, I would assert that were you to ask the real members of the ruling class if I truly belong, you might be surprised to learn that I do not. You see, there are other, unspoken and equally destructive labels that are applied to me: rebellious, uncultured, less privileged, outspoken, dissatisfied, ungrateful, irresponsible, and even foolish.

    I am with you. I understand and empathize more than you know. Chin up, Sister. We are all in this with you.