Choose your words wisely: language, labels, and stereotypes


Remember the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” It usually came somewhere towards the end of a speech your mom gave you, after the 4th grade bully called you a name or made some superficial unsolicited observation of you, with intentions of being insulting. It helped mitigate the bruise to your self-esteem that the bully’s words caused and for a moment you believed it and got over it. I’d guess that at some point in time, this idea that others’ perceptions and descriptions of us are meaningless and not hurtful has been used to encourage and maintain positive self-esteem and self-concepts and internal appraisals of ourselves. It’s a good strategy–telling yourself that other peoples words don’t hurt, but is it true? Does it really work?

I think this strategy can be useful and does help to bolster self-esteem and remind us of attributes we want and should accept about ourselves. However, it’s a lot more difficult than we might think. Words, in fact, can be very harmful and can have deep impacts on individual development, relationships, and behavior. In our daily communications, the exchange of words happens so quickly and automatically. Once we’ve acquired and mastered the use of language, words come naturally, oftentimes without thinking. We think less about the specific words we’ll use to express something, and more about the general idea we’re trying to express. But I think it’s worth it to take more time in choosing words. There are meanings attached to words, just as there are words and meanings attached to certain identities. Furthermore, there are thoughts, feelings, and attitudes associated with these words, meanings, and identities. Oftentimes the language we use can lead to stereotyping and/or stigmatization due to the meanings associated with words, and the identities they’re attached to. The implicit association test shows how automatic thoughts and unconscious biases manifest out of our awareness.

Unfortunately, societal stereotypes exist, and our language is just one way we reinforce these problematic prejudices. For example, in the workplace a man and a woman might be displaying the exact same work behavior, but it is more likely that the woman would be described as “bossy” or “abrasive” while the man might be described as “confident” or a “natural leader.” Stereotypically, women are supposed to be more submissive, sweet, and frankly, “less than” men in the workplace, which explains why these labels would be used when they step outside of that role. There are several studies documenting this phenomenon, which clearly shows how stereotypes influence labeling. One might assume that this behavior, in this particular example would be perpetuated by men, that men might be engaging in the labeling and profiling of women in the workplace. Actually, this type of stereotyping happens across genders, just as racial stereotyping and profiling happens across ethnic identities. This is usually not something that is done intentionally or maliciously. Most of the time it is a subtle unconscious process. Stereotypes and prejudices are so engrained in our psyche’s that we’re often not aware when we are perpetuating them, even if/when we belong to the group being stereotyped. We unconsciously choose the language that corresponds with internalized perceptions or attitudes we have towards certain individuals and groups because that’s what we’ve learned to do.

There are serious consequences to this mechanical speech. Labels are internalized by both the ones labeling and the ones labeled. According to psychologists people live up or down to the expectations of stereotypes affecting their group. This happens across settings and situations: in academic settings, in the workplace, and in the general social environment. The mental health field is full of stigmatizing labels and words. Diagnoses are called “disorders,” and people who might be suffering or simply dealing with a life change become “mentally ill.” The stigma of being associated with mental illness sometimes deters people from seeking help they might need. It also polarizes the vast spectrum of psychological experiences into just two categories: healthy or ill. A hierarchical separation is made between those diagnosing and those diagnosed, between the labelers and the labeled. Stereotype threat is a concrete example of when this happens. Stereotype threat occurs when an individual belonging to a particular stereotyped group, actually performs or behaves in line with the stereotype, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stereotype threat and other types of self-fulfilling prophecies can significantly impact academic performance, and can limit the development of identities and aspirations.

One way to combat boxing people in with labels and stereotypes is to be more aware of your language. Awareness of the language you use as well as the language that automatically comes to mind when thinking of certain individuals or groups. Some of our thoughts and attitudes aren’t even our own. Think about where your attitudes and beliefs come from? Does an automatic thought about a particular ethnic group actually come from you or did you learn it from the media? What are your negative perceptions of different groups based on, and where did they come from? Your family? Fear? Ignorance? Religion? There are lots of reasons we make assumptions and rely on automatic thinking, as opposed to making more accurate assessments based on reality. Slowing down and taking time to actually get to know a person instead of assuming you know them based on previously internalized “information” is a good start to reducing your own participation in negative labeling and stereotyping. Another way to reduce labeling and stereotyping is by letting people identify themselves before you take it upon yourself to guess, “figure it out,” or put a label on it. Of course there are social, structural and institutional changes that need to be made to really fight these issues, but as individuals we can all take steps to helping ourselves and each other be seen as our authentic selves, without limitations.

Image taken from: http://forensicpsych.umwblogs.org/files/2010/11/label.jpg



In the last few weeks I’ve found myself avoiding social media (facebook, instagram, etc.) due to the content of the “news” being reported. All of the violence, conflict, and ignorance has just been too much. Countless stories of black boys and men being terrorized and/or killed by police officers, the genocide or war (however you’d like to call it) between Israeli’s and Palestinians, the U.S. airstrikes on Iraq, and the overall spreading of fear and lack of care or compassion for ourselves and each other. It’s hard to not get caught up in the scary world and become afraid. It’s hard to not take a side or place blame on someone, some group, some country, or some entire race of people. Lots of us have become very good at placing others in categories, neat little boxes, based on skin color, gender presentation, religious affiliation, age, body type, or whatever else we first notice and automatically associate with this persons appearance. We’ve learned to do this through history and the media does a great job of encouraging and reinforcing the use of these stereotypes and “otherness.” A simple definition of othering is “the process of perceiving or portraying someone or something as fundamentally different or alien.”

For some reason we worry about needing more (food, resources, money, power etc.) or having better, in order to live and thrive, as if there isn’t enough stuff to go around. Initially othering was probably mostly about self-preservation, distinguishing between ones self and allies between enemies, so that you and your allies could survive. But over time, self-preservation has transformed into something completely different. Survival has become easy for some, as we’ve added hoarding, stealing from, and dehumanizing others into the process. And as a result, there is oppression, suffering, and disregard of humanity. Othering takes away our ability to see a person as whole, as a valuable life with memories, emotions, ideas, potential, family, and an individual experience. It makes us automatically put some people in groups that we’ve designated as invisible, inferior, or not worthy. Othering is so engrained in our psyche’s that we’re often not aware when or if we’re doing it. It’s automatic and pervasive, which is a huge problem.

Not only is othering automatic and pervasive, it’s also layered and strategic. There are some groups who have been strategically othered and made into “out groups” so that the “in group” can stay in–so that there are haves and have nots. But why cant everybody have? I think there is enough good stuff on the planet to go around, if some folks stopped hoarding, stealing, and keeping things (goods, land, food, wealth, education, etc.) only for themselves. The creation of in groups and out groups has detrimental effects on us all. Those who are othered, or out-grouped, often have less rights, are shamed, shunned, avoided, feared, misunderstood, and so on and so on. And on the other side is the in-group who does the shaming, shunning, avoiding, and get to be “normal,” accepted, and right. This othering happens in so many different contexts. Different body types are often othered. Who decided that slim or slender bodies were the norm and that larger or differently abled bodies were less acceptable or less beautiful? There is a protype and if you don’t fit it, you’re either not good enough, you’re not fully human, or you’re just not right. You’re wrong. By simply existing, and being yourself, you’re wrong. You likely get messages that you’re wrong from everywhere. A relative might feign innocence and ask you about going on a diet. Later, you might go see a movie where there is no one over 200 pounds cast in a lead role, there is no one who looks like you being portrayed positively on screen. Then as you’re driving home, you’ll be sure to hear a commercial on the radio for herbalife or nutrisystem, and pass by a weight watchers billboard. Of course this is just one example of body size, but this happens with all groups who are othered. Whether, you’re fat, Mexican, gay, homeless, dark-skinned, an immigrant, transgender, or have any other non “mainstream” part of your identity, you’ve likely experienced this.

Mainstream is usually seen as White, often male (but you can be included in the mainstream as a female if you’re white), cisgendered, heterosexual, wealthy or middle class, able bodied, skinny or “fit,” and attractive by society’s standards. Chances are, if you fit into the mainstream, your identity has never or rarely got you arrested, harrassed, shamed, excluded, or less access to resources. Usually those of us who don’t completely fit in the mainstream have felt or experienced at least one of these things in our lifetime. And what does that do the person or the group who is othered? In short, it leads to divisions within the group (ex. light skin vs. dark skin between black Americans), it leads to mental health problems, limits creativity and potential, lowers self-esteem, creates self-hate, and internalized racism, sexism, and so on and so on. It can be devastating to individuals and entire groups. Those who are not mainstream are not depicted in the media, and when they are, it is often negatively or stereotypically, therefore those who are othered are never really known. They’re never really seen or understood, as the vastness and complexity of their experiences are not shared or told. There are only small snippets of the others that are portrayed, which are often inaccurate and exaggerated, leading to continued negative views and treatment of those individuals and groups.

And what about those doing the othering? We can’t forget that this affects them too. Living a life with the privilege of othering, usually makes one unaware of and oblivious to those being othered. It decreases the ability to care, understand, or even want to understand anything other than what is right/mainstream. This is often unconscious and unintentional, as we’ve been othering since the beginning of time, for some of us it’s as natural as breathing or eating. It’s just something we do. But this thing that has become so woven into the fabric of our beings is actually not necessary like breathing or eating. We don’t need to other to survive. Othering is harmful and painful. It creates division, and engenders violence and suffering and I’m sure we can all agree that we could do without all of the violence and suffering. I like to believe that most people are inherently good and want to be happy and want happiness for others. We all feel a range of emotions as humans including empathy and sympathy, to some capacity, but othering has taken away some of our ability to remember this. I think we all need to remember. This week I’m challenging myself to make a very conscious effort to notice my assumptions and automatic thoughts and check them. Am I stereotyping that person? Am I judging someones experience because I don’t understand it? Am I thinking or wishing a person was different because they don’t fit into the box I want them to be in? Am I forcing them in the box anyway? These are some questions I ask and wish we would all ask before we judge, act, or react to someone we encounter.

Most people just want to be themselves and be happy. No one wants to have to feel bad or defensive or on guard for being who they are. We shouldn’t have to be apologize for being ourselves. Individual expression should be encouraged, supported, and celebrated. All identities should be encouraged, supported and celebrated. We have a long way to go before this is true, but we can all make strides to move in this direction.

1. Check your privilege
Most of us have privilege in some areas, some more than others. Checking your privilege starts with a non-defensive stance. Some people with privilege don’t realize they have privilege and will defensively deny that they may treat people differently, reinforce social inequity, or do harm. Accept that privilege does in fact exist and that you are likely benefiting from unearned advantages that others might not have based on your race, class, education, sexual orientation, gender, etc. Think about the areas in which you hold privilege and try to imagine what it might be like for a person who doesn’t hold privilege in that same part of identity. If you’re a man, imagine what it might be like to be a woman who has to deal with constant cat-calls and men trying to “holler” at them. Or better yet, imagine if the roles were reversed and you had to deal with women or men ( who are bigger than you, aggressive, and intrusive) commenting on your body and cat calling every day. If you’re White, imagine what it is like to be a Black person being followed in a store, or a Persian person stopped in the airport. Figuring out where you hold privilege requires identifying yourself. Once you identify yourself, check yourself. See how you can limit othering and simply encourage and acknowledge others, particularly those less acknowledged so those experiences and lives can be known and understood. Knowing and understanding more about others increases compassion and empathy. More compassion and empathy, less violence and suffering.

2. Check your biases
Similarly to privilege, we all have biases that influence our thoughts, attitudes, and behavior. Biases can quickly come into awareness and our responses to them come just as quickly. If we don’t slow down and think about what and why we’re doing something, we’ll continue to unknowingly reinforce harmful behaviors and interactions. Why did you hire this person instead of that person? Was there bias involved? Do you have assumptions about this race of people, which might be influencing you to send that child to the principles office more than other children, while both children are exhibiting the same behavior? Ask yourself questions and answer them honestly. Don’t judge yourself when you realize you might be acting unfairly to certain people or groups. We all have biases and can be prejudice, but checking is a good step in reducing them.

3. Listen and learn
Listening to and learning from those who you are different from is a big step in reducing othering and its detrimental effects. As humans, we’re all a bit narcissistic and thing we know what we know. And we do know what we know, but we don’t know what others know. Nobody can explain or portray a certain experience better than the person who has experienced it. If you’re ignorant about a certain experience or group, listen to them about what their experience is. Seeing a movie with a Black character or interacting with one homeless person, doesn’t automatically make you informed or have authority over that experience. Let individuals create their own narratives. You’ll never learn or truly understand someone else without.

4. Be open and kind
This is self explanatory and should (wishful thinking?) be the default way to be. But perhaps, we all need reminders sometime. Openness and kindness go a long way. If we could keep these two things in mind, I’m sure we’d all be less irritable and angry and more happy and content. With happiness and contentment come peace and love and that should be enough, right?

Photo from: Business 2 Community