‘Describe yourself in three words’: a sentence which never fails to elicit a few groans and eye rolls in a room full of strangers, but something which we are probably all guilty of doing when we first meet someone.
What colour is their hair? Where are they from? Is that the girl with the glasses, or the man with the bald patch?
As humans, we love putting other humans in little boxes. We like compartmentalising these new acquaintances. It helps us to make sense of an otherwise confusing blur of faces and voices and bodies. It makes us feel comfortable, assigning characteristics to people who, in reality, we know nothing about.
The author James Baldwin was once famously described in three words: black, poor, and gay. The journalist conducting the interview not only took the liberty of describing Baldwin in this way, but then asked Baldwin directly: ‘You must have said to yourself, “Gee, how disadvantaged can I get?”’
Baldwin laughs this off and replies: ‘No, I thought I had hit the jackpot’.
Despite his good humour, Baldwin didn’t really believe this to be true. Society had put him into a box which he spent his whole career trying to fight his way out of. His whole identity became condensed into these three reductive words.
Being black, poor, and gay is not a bad thing; it is simply that Baldwin wanted people to see him for more than that. He wanted to be known for more than three of his characteristics. He didn’t want to be unfairly stereotyped or compartmentalised just for the colour of his skin, his sexuality, or his economic background.
Baldwin felt so plagued by the public image that had been painted of him in America that he moved to Europe aged 24, stating that he just wanted to be seen as himself. As he claimed in The Last Interview and Other Conversations: ‘I was not born to be what someone said I was. I was not born to be defined by someone else, but by myself and myself only’.
Unfortunately, Baldwin’s legacy is yet to rid itself of these particular labels. Put people in boxes, and they often never escape them. If we constantly tell people that they are something, they sometimes start to believe it.
In fact, this self-fulfilling prophecy is well-documented in recent psychological studies. In one such study, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson selected completely random students in an elementary school, and told their teachers that they had passed a test designed to determine ‘academic bloomers’, (children who would supposedly flourish academically over the next year).
A year later, they returned to find that the children who had been randomly selected as the supposed ‘academic bloomers’, especially the younger children, had now actually overtaken their peers by an average of 10-15 IQ points. Because their teachers had believed these children to be more promising than their peers, and had treated them accordingly, the experiment became a clear example of the self-fulfilling prophecy of labelling.
Tell children they are more intelligent, and they actually become more intelligent. This might not seem like such a bad thing, but the practice of labelling often has far more damaging results.
Take the case of Tawny Garcia’s Labels and the Effects on Deviance, for example, in which Garcia demonstrates that young people who are more prone to internalising labels become more likely to involve themselves in deviance. ‘Deviance’, in Garcia’s terms, covers anything from petty theft to terrorism.
Telling someone that they are less worthy, less capable, or inferior in any way to their fellow people can have an extremely damaging effect on their psyche. In short, we need to stop labelling people. We need to stop confining them to restrictive boxes, and describing identities in a few inane words.
No person can ever really be done justice in three words. If we allow people a little more room to grow, they might flourish. Or in James Baldwin’s words: ‘If one’s to live at all, one’s certainly got to get rid of labels’.
Cover image: Literary Hub