Why label?

The whole idea of labels is one that grows tiresome I think.

Around Washington, DC, where I grew up, there was a very large population of African Americans. (In fact, there are areas where the African American population is the majority. I taught in a school where less than one-third of my sixth grade class was Caucasian). But that label has always bugged me, too. First of all, very few of those African Americans have ever been to Africa, so is that really accurate? What about a Caucasian born in Africa who moves to the U.S.; does she then become African American? Or a Caucasian born in the U.S. who moves to Africa; does he become an American African? What about an African American who moves to Africa? Is he then an African American African?

As a Caucasian I suppose I am a European American but that seems tedious. If I wanted to be more specific I would have to label myself a Scots-English-German American. My point though is why label at all? I was born in America, as were my parents, and their parents, and their parents, and back quite a way (I have genealogies from both sides tracing back quite a ways, and the arrival in America of my ancestors goes way back) so why not just say I am American? I think that there is really just one race…human. Wouldn’t it simplify things greatly if we just eliminated labels all together?

This discussion reminds me also of a mini-controvery that came up in a professional network I am a part of this past year. Our school has a number of international students, and the issue came up from another school that also does over the use of the term “native language” to refer to the language that the international students learned first. This individual, and apparently others he claimed to be speaking for, found the use of the term “native” to be offensive since it implied that the language was somehow inferior or less civilized. He suggested the use of the term “first language.”

It seems that (1) people get too worked up over some terms and perhaps too easily offended, and (2) we all sometimes get too concerned with labels in general. So I ask again, why label at all?

Labels also create the problem of trying to ensure that each label is adequately represented in any given group, which leads to policies such as affirmative action (AA). I guess I would fall into the camp of the opponents of AA policies because I feel that admission to a school or hiring/promotion within a company should be based on merit. While I can appreciate the richness that diversity can bring to any school or organization, and I can agree that diversity is often desirable, I do not think it helps anyone to create diversity by lowering expectations or requirements. In other words, if in order to have diversity, a school or organization has to accept individuals that would not otherwise qualify for acceptance, the organziation will suffer. It may well become more diverse, but it will also become less rigorous.

I think AA policies are self defeating. In the instance of schools, they result in the admission of students who would not otherwise qualify, but then if those students who came in under AA policies do not succeed that does not look good either, so then the standards for success at the school must also be lowered in order to ensure that those who probably should not be there anyway are not all flunking out. As these standards are lowered, the overall quality of the students at the school will enevitably decline, and more than likely the level of the faculty members and the rigor of the teaching will, too.

I believe that admission to schools should be based on merit only. In fact, I would advocate that race not even be indicated on application forms or be a consideration for admission (or gender either, for that matter, unless it is an all-female or all-male school).

At the end of the day, when it comes to race, I see no good that comes from the labels.

One thought on “Why label?

  1. yah but,,,, what about left handers???? when i was a kid, lefty’s had a better chance of being pitchers. so, i was a catcher, or a hitter, now a rancher. i realize, some labels aren’t good, but this one kid in my country grade school was really dumb, and one girl smelled funny, so we weren’t supposed to label them?? i mean, how do you discern who is better than somebody else anyway??

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