The Labeling Game Essay, Research Paper
THE LABELING GAME
This is Jeopardy! Let’s take a look at today’s categories, shall we? Blacks in Sports, Italian cooking, Japanese in Business, famous wives, Jewish Bankers, and finally, Arab terrorists. Wait a minute. What’s wrong with these categories? If you haven’t guessed already each of these categories represents a racial or gender stereotype. This may not be a realistic Jeopardy game, but it’s a game we play everyday – it’s the game of labeling.
Like Jeopardy, in the Labeling Game we have the answers, or think we do, before we ask the question. In our society we constantly classify people in to broad groups merely by their looks. The problem is not the categories themselves, but the acceptance of stereotypes, which leads to negative self-images.
We are all aware of these stereotypical roles, but what most of us do not realize is that these stereotypes hurts us the most. When we stereotype our own groups, or accept the labels others give us, we create negative self-labels. As psychology professor Robert Feldman wrote in the book Adjustment, “The self-image we create in childhood causes us to continue in our adult lives to fit whatever labels we have accepted.”
We learn stereotypical roles at a very young age. We all remember those fairy tales we read as children. Snow White cooks and cleans for the seven dwarfs. Even the dwarfs’ names are stereotypes: Sleepy, Sneezy, Grumpy, Happy, Dopey, Bashful and Doc. In Lady and the Tramp, Lady is innocent, shy, and dainty whereas the tramp is bold, confident, and daring.
By the time we get to high school we have become well accustomed to the labels our peers, our teachers, and the media put on us.
Labels become more important in junior high when we become aware of the labels on our clothes. We want Abercrombie and Fitch shirts, Levis jeans, anything Gap and never the uncool imitations. Once we have our clothes just right, we must choose our social identity carefully. We want good grades to please our parents, but we don’t want to be nerds. We want to make friends, but we want to avoid the druggies and alcoholics.
According to teachers, we’re either leaders or followers, over-achievers or under-achievers, often disruptive, occasionally talkative, and girls, definitely boy-crazy.
The media plays upon our need for labels, as we are encouraged to be part of the “Pepsi Generation.” When news reports on youth violence, we become the “lost generation.” And when a name as meaningful as the babyboomers could not be found for us, we were labeled Generation X.
Teenagers, as the most active participants, often have the most to lose in the labeling game. When they start to accept and believe the labels, they are playing with the rest of their lives. A Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Penelope Russianoff wrote, “The limiting self-images of adults developed gradually in the process of growing up.” The self-image we accept in our formative years stays with us, and affects us as adults.
Some of you may have heard this riddle. A father and son were driving on the highway. The father lost control, swerved off the road, and ran into a telephone pole. The father died instantly, and his son was critically injured. An ambulance rushed the boy to a nearby hospital. When a prominent surgeon was called to provide immediate treatment, a gasp was heard. “I can’t operate on this boy” the surgeon said, “He is my son.” How can that be? The answer–the surgeon was the boy’s mother. One of the areas where labels effect us are the professions we think men and women should have, as well as their behavior. A woman’s role is to be passive, tactful, assistive, and emotional, whereas men are stereotyped as aggressive, tough, independent, and unemotional. In short, women are not supposed to be surgeons.
Many women are afraid to assert themselves thinking they will be labeled “witchy”, or be labeled “selfish”, if they want a career when their children are still young. Women often limit themselves with the negative labels associated with their sex. As Dr. Pamela E. Butler wrote in the book Self-Assertion for Women, “Negative self labeling is a major factor in tying women to the stereotypic feminine role.”
On the flip, side a man can’t show his emotions or he is labeled soft. If a man isn’t aggressive then he’s labeled weak. A boy growing up who isn’t good at sports runs the risk of being labeled, a sissy. The acceptance of negative labels keeps men in their stereotypical roles just as much as it does for women.
However, many people have broken out of these limits. For example, California has two female senators. Yet females are still a minority in politics. For the first time there are female Supreme Court Justices. Yet out of the Nine supreme court justices, only two are women. Men too, have broken labels. Now there are male nurses, elementary school teachers, and even homemakers, though they too are a minority. The breaking of labels has to take place on an individual level in childhood, when we establish our self-image.
Two years ago I was working at a summer program for elementary school students. There was one boy, Andy, in third grade who couldn’t read. His older brother and sister had both been gifted and talented students. When Andy didn’t qualify for the gifted programs, he was even harder to work with. Whenever anyone tried to teach him to read he would scream out saying that he can t read and can t learn anything either. Finally, when I had to work with him, he promised to listen to the story as long as he didn’t have to read any of it. So I read to him. After a few pages I came to the particularly hard word of school. Pronouncing it, s-ch-o-o-l, I continued. Andy stopped me, corrected me, saying that it is pronounced school, rather than s-ch-o-o-l. I started stumbling more and more after that, and by the end, he was reading the story himself. He had never believed that he could read, when I tricked him he read the story without realizing he was doing it. After that, Andy started reading more and more, in just the last four weeks of the summer class he got up to his grade level in reading and loved reading the short stories himself.
What Andy did is tell himself that he couldn’t read. It wasn’t his nature but it was just a label he accepted. This is discussed by Psychotherapist Sidney Jourard in the book, Healthy Personality. “When a person says he is lazy or sincere, it is just as if he is saying ‘it is my nature to be lazy or sincere’. But human beings do not have fixed natures. Thus when a person forms a self concept he is not so much describing his nature as he is making a pledge that he will continue to be the kind of person he believes he now is.” Just as Andy limited his capabilities by accepting labels as his given nature, we accept labels that limit our potential.
When he didn’t fit into the gifted category, he labeled himself as incapable and he remained that way. We can’t put individuals into categories. Every individual is just that, an individual. We can not accept labels put upon us. We have to realize that the labeling game is not a game, it’s a serious matter. We’re playing with our self-image, our self limits, our lives. When Andy realized that his self-labeling was false, he was able to succeed. Since then I’ve always thought of Andy when I think I’m not athletic, I’m not musical, or I’m lazy. Andy can inspire us all to stop playing the labeling game.
Whether we label others, label ourselves, or accept the labels put on us, we are playing a dangerous game, and the one most in Jeopardy is ourselves. Instead of assuming we have the answer beforehand, we need to ask the question to find out our potential. When we do, we all become winners in the most important game of all; the game of life.