Are labels harmful?

Written in July 2022


Humans use labels all the time to convey meaning about a set of things or people (or a single item or an individual) without needing to explain every facet of that person or object. Labels are a form of cognitive shorthand that express more meaning than their few words. Take “white van driver” as an example. We use and know this to mean someone who is not only driving a white van (and it can actually be of any colour) but who is also an aggressive or negligent driver who may be prone to shouting at people from the window, and who is likely to be employed in a manual trade. This label is also a stereotype and in fact may be considered more of a stereotype than a label, as it perpetuates negative and potentially harmful views of any person who happens to drive a white van.

We can see that labels and stereotypes are not the same thing, although people use them interchangeably and I think that this is partly where the idea that labels are harmful comes from. It seems that the two are commonly conflated, and that the negative aspects attached to stereotypes carry over into labels until they become one and the same. Something I have heard many times and have had to defend myself on, is that I “shouldn't label myself”, because I use some labels to understand who I am; without labels I do not have an identity beyond “person”.

This is an approximation of a conversation I have had:


X: I don't know why you have to label yourself as [autistic]*

Me: Because it helps me understand who and how I am. Before I had the diagnosis/label I didn't know who I was.

X: You shouldn't label yourself like that. You're not like the other people I know with Asperger's, they're all off their heads.

Me: seething quietly


In this interaction, my use of the Asperger's/autistic label made the other person feel uncomfortable as they could not understand how I am not like another person with the same label. I still get a feeling of incredulity when I recall this conversation over 3 years since it took place. The other person's understanding of autism (and, by extension, of me) was threatened by my label, by me identifying with it, and they wanted me to lose my identity so they could feel more comfortable.

The stereotype of autism is a male, nerdy, train-loving, number-obsessed, shy, eye-contact avoider who has no friends and lives with his parents or in supported accommodation. So, when people hear that I am autistic they can't understand how that is possible, since I am not male, am almost definitely nerdy but because I'm read as female this is harmlessly “quirky/eccentric”, do not like trains, am terrible at maths (although I am good at patterns and even better with words), apparently outgoing (excellent masker), person with good eye contact (except it's actually more like staring), who can get on with people and has lived independently.


I don't fit the stereotype, so I shouldn't use the label, because they two don't fit. Well, yes, that is my entire point. I may not fit the stereotype, but I do fit the label and it allows me to understand who I am. Perhaps the other party in this conversation was concerned that other people may use the stereotype and misjudge me, but they were unware they were also judging me against that stereotype by insisting I shouldn't use it.


People who want to avoid labels are avoiding challenging their stereotypes, they are avoiding opening their minds and learning something new, and they are arrogant enough to think that they get to choose how other people identify. Saying things like “but we're all just people” minimizes and invalidates the experiences of people who aren't treated like people by the majority of society. It enables judgement of people for things they can't control, because “we're all just people”. Yes, we are all people, but we're not all the same, we don't have the same abilities, thoughts and values. 


Imagine you had no idea what type and colour your hair was, and you couldn't understand why the shampoo you used and the way you styled it just didn't work like it did for other people. One day, someone told you exactly what your hair is like and armed with that knowledge, you could find the right shampoo and styling for your particular hair. What would you say to someone who then told you that you shouldn't “label” yourself like that, because you're not the same person as everyone else with that hair type? I think my answer now is less of a quiet seethe, and more of a concise and directive two-word answer, maybe accompanied by some easily understandable body language.


So, stereotypes are harmful because they are overwhelmingly negative, but labels are not the same thing, and help people understand themselves better. Finding out what your label is allows you to find strategies, coping skills, the people who will understand you, and it allows you to let go of any shame or stigma you may have felt because people didn't understand you (the label also helps other people understand you).


*At the time I was using the label “Asperger's” and I have a whole piece on why that was here, so please do read this to understand why I sometimes use an outdated and potentially ableist label, as it is relevant to this piece too.

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