Few things are as multifaceted or complex as personal identity. Yet, numerous social media posts and newspaper articles seem to suggest that we can somehow capture our unique individuality in one or two words, using broad labels such as black, white, gay, male and so on. But how could one word ever accurately depict a person’s culture, history, life experiences, physical characteristics, values and beliefs—not to mention a variety of other factors? Will two men have nearly identical experiences just because they happen to be men? To what extent can any label—or even a whole set of labels—help us to accurately understand the world inside someone else’s head and capture our own sense of self and the nature of our emotions, ideas and intentions?
Humans have been naming, labelling and categorising ever since we could paint cave walls. In the Abrahamic scriptures, Adam is asked to label every kind of animal that God introduces him to. Labels often help to simplify matters, making it easier for members of the same group to seek each other out for activities such as collective worship, marriage and friendship. But they can also cause us to judge others as if they were one-dimensional representatives of their group characteristics, rather than individuals in their own right, and this can impoverish our human experience and damage our sense of connection.
Consider the label privileged, which is often applied to western people with pale complexions on account of their lack of melanin. It is a fallacy to assume that racial privilege always trumps all other factors that impact a person’s life—even if we make provisions for those factors using the concept of intersectionality. In any case, labels do little to alter pre-existing attitudes. As researcher Erin Cooley found when she conducted a survey on attitudes towards poverty, when liberals read about white privilege, “it didn’t significantly change how they empathised with a poor black person—but it did significantly bump down their sympathy for a poor white person.” The counterargument to this is that, while white privilege does not guarantee the absence of struggle, it guarantees the absence of race-based struggle. But even this is not always true, since white people are not immune from being excluded or discriminated against on account of their racial identity.
The placement of whiteness at the apex of a hierarchy of privileges is paradoxical. What about white people in countries such as Latvia? Is it reasonable to assume that Latvian culture reflects American or British culture when it comes to notions linked to identity? Might it be that the language used by Americans to describe themselves is drawn from a specific context and a history that does not readily form part of the Latvian understanding of the world? Where do Romanians fit in? How many of them see themselves primarily as white in the same way some Americans might? The danger of assuming, stripping away, downplaying or even overemphasising a specific identity marker is that we might ignore the plethora of other potentially more important markers. We then might overlook the associated privileges that someone can be born into, such as a stable family life, a prosperous nation, high social class and access to wealth, an agreeable geographical location and English as a native language. All these elements affect a person’s outlook and opportunities.
Labels played a key role in shaping the dystopian realities of the twentieth century. The Holocaust, apartheid, Jim Crow laws and Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians from Uganda all relied on the use of language to both unite and empower the tyrants and to stigmatise and exclude their victims. The weaponisation of language was an enabling factor in the genocidal Parsley Massacre of 1937, which resulted in the racially motivated murder of 12,000 Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. When the Dominican military could not rely on the colour of the person’s skin to ascertain whether they were Haitian, they made them say the Spanish word for parsley (which Haitians pronounce without a rolled R). Failure to pronounce the word perejil in the right way meant death.
So, to what extent has the West learned from such atrocities, which led to the criminalisation and ostracization of entire populations? And how well do we understand the role of language in fostering or undermining social cohesion?
Most people seem to agree that words matter. In recent years, there has been no shortage of celebrities, politicians and even members of the public apologising for using “inappropriate” language or making “inappropriate” remarks. Most reasonable people take great care as to how they address others—avoiding derogatory words because they genuinely do not enjoy upsetting people, not solely because they wish to avoid public backlash or professional repercussions. The challenge in navigating the public square, particularly on social media, is that certain colloquialisms or linguistic trends that were popular just a few years ago, have since been deemed so offensive that they should never be used, regardless of context.
At the same time, newspaper editors and journalists seem unconcerned about offending specific groups, so long as it is seen as punching-up. The Glastonbury Festival was chastised for being “too white.” After England’s women’s football team defeated Norway 8–0, much ado was made about the lack of non-white players on the field and on the bench. The team’s performance was of secondary concern, as was sport’s meritocratic selection process, which differentiates based on ability and not on immutable characteristics—at least not since the days of South African apartheid, when who could represent that country was determined on the basis of skin colour. Yet in 2022, while the English public was celebrating the team’s accomplishment, the BBC was so taken aback by the players’ white faces that they questioned whether a “fix” was required. White is no longer a descriptive label, denoting one’s melanin levels; it has been transformed into a political and moral issue. Yet, the GB women’s relay team that broke a national record at the Tokyo Olympics was entirely black—and no one seemed to deem this lack of diversity unacceptable. When did it become acceptable to report that an all-black team exists because of effort, skill and hard work, whereas an all-white team can only exist because of privilege, inequity and the exclusion of ethnic minorities?
Labels are not inherently bad or unimportant. The fact that you are white (pale-skinned) matters on a hot summer day. Likewise, it matters if someone offers to bake you a cake and you happen to be diabetic. If you are invited to a barbecue, you should let the hosts know if you are a vegan. Our preferences, needs and ways of life can all be revealed by labels—and that’s great. However, we must also remember that life is often more nuanced than this.
During an interview for 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace asked Morgan Freeman how to end racism. Freeman responded, “I will no longer refer to you as a white man and I will request that you stop referring to me as a black man.” Freeman wasn’t renouncing his heritage or ignoring the ethnicity of the man opposite him; rather, he was highlighting the ways in which labels can create a problem that would go away if we changed how we relate and refer to one another.
Identity should not be exclusive. One’s love for one’s native country, for example, should not preclude immigrants from loving that country too. The existence of one person’s privilege does not imply that another person lacks privileges of their own.
The heptapod language featured in Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival depicts the past, present and future as cyclic, fluid and simultaneous. In the film, their language enables the aliens to transcend time. This is a fantasy—but it is not so far-fetched to believe that human language, if used appropriately, could help us transcend the limitations of labelling and categories. With a bit of effort and care, it could also assist us in getting rid of the zero-sum mentality that some labels have come to imply. Our relationship with language must evolve, and, as we learn to use language as a tool to foster connections, we can effectively de-tribalise our culture and de-weaponise our speech.