Conservative. Liberal. Academic. Redneck. Student. Lawyer. Senior.
These are just a few of the words we use to describe people. Labels can refer to physical features, groups people belong to, ways they behave, their beliefs, or how we think they think.
This tendency to label is normal, a shorthand for referring to those who have some similarity. Generalizing about likenesses helps us see patterns. It helps us make sense of our world and communicate broad characteristics.
The trouble comes when we start thinking that our labels define everything important about people in a group. We’re on shaky ground when we decide that everyone in a group has all the characteristics implied by that label. We miss so much and make many mistaken assumptions when we think and speak of individuals as only those stereotypes. A group of burly men with longish hair and scruffy beards roaring up on Harley’s are the picture of dangerous Hell’s Angels. Yet, there are identical-looking groups who spend lots of time and money every year helping make sure disadvantaged kids have Christmas presents.
In addition, many times we simply get it wrong and the categories we use aren’t the least bit accurate. Was someone with Middle Eastern features born in Iran or Iowa? Do those tattoos on a young man indicate gang membership or a strong artistic bent? Is the woman in the long skirt a hippie or simply uncomfortable showing her legs?
People are complex. Each of us is a unique blend of our heritage, the experiences we’ve had, the beliefs we hold, and the thoughts we think. Are you just like everyone else who calls themselves a republican or a democrat? A Methodist? A Catholic? Of course not. So, we shouldn’t expect everyone from another group to be all the same, either. When we lump everyone with a given label together and decide they’re uniformly defined by what we think they think, it creates distance. We are “Us” and those odd people are “Not Us”. At best, this causes misunderstanding and the attendant frustrations. At worst, we think of others as so different from us that it’s okay to bully, mistreat, or harm them.
Labels are too often used to put others in a box. All of us have had the experience of being judged unfairly because we share one thing with someone who is otherwise completely different. When we’re treated as a stereotype, stuffed into a box someone else built for us, it doesn’t feel good. We can feel confused, frustrated, angry, and certainly not seen for who we really are. It makes us less inclined to cooperate, or even interact with them. They can feel the same way. A downward spiral of disconnection and fear happens. We don’t feel like we belong in the same community. Yet, the citizens of this country carry a huge range of characteristics and beliefs, and we have to coexist.
To counteract this separation and fear, we need to see beyond the labels we give others, to the full individual. We must question our assumptions about who someone is. This takes effort and a certain courage. It helps to start with respect. We must suspend judgment and learn what they really believe, and why. Yes, a few people may turn out to be fairly true to the stereotypes we hold. But for most people, we are likely to find we have much more in common than not.
Labels pigeonhole us and hide our uniqueness. It doesn’t feel good to be stereotyped and it doesn’t foster getting along. We can do better.