A Closer Look at Labels


Magnolia Meimand Saffarian

How would you define yourself without labels? According to spoken word poet Richard Williams, better known as Prince Ea, labels “blind us from seeing a person for who they are” and only let us see “through the judgmental, prejudicial, artificial filters of who we think they are.”

In his popular video called “I am NOT Black, You are NOT White,” which has been viewed over 12,000,000 times on YouTube, Ea talks about how society “force-feeds” us these dividing labels, so he calls on us to act against them. “Only until we remove them all … will we be free to see ourselves and each other for who we truly are,” he said.

Although Ea’s video was posted nearly two years ago, its message is still relevant today, and even more relevant to the beloved home we call UCSB.

Students are prone to labels and their harmful effects. According to an article in Psychology Today, “we all use stereotypes all the time. They are a kind of mental shortcut.” These shortcuts we make through labels seem inevitable as we walk through the busy halls and pass by over 20,000 students, some with a “Make Donald Drumpf Again” hat and others with a “Black Lives Matter” backpack pin.

With such a large student population, it seems like we can not get to know our fellow students past political or social labels. What if we did? Could we define the people of our UCSB community without labels? Motivated by what UCSB could be, I am inspired to turn this hopeful vision into reality.

In order to do this, I met up with Reed Taylor, Darin Leung, and Tiffany (who prefers to use her first name only), 3 UCSB students I have never met, heard of, or seen before, and we tried getting to know each other on a level beyond labels. We did an activity where we compared labels used to describe ourselves and each other from a hypothetical stranger’s perspective, we watched Prince Ea’s video, and we talked about the role that labels play in our lives.

The Students

Taylor is a second year Computer Engineering major from Orange County. “I’ve loved computers since I was a little kid,” he said. Not only does Reed love computers, but he is also a big fan of the outdoors, as he does “a lot of rock climbing and [plays] frisbee” in his free time.

Although I correctly predicted Taylor to be a “nature lover,” I was wrong in thinking that his ankle injury was from hiking. In reality, it was due to a fall while participating in another adventurous activity called “slacklining.”  

Leung is a fourth year Statistical Science major from Arcadia. Leung will be graduating from UCSB this year, so when I asked about his post-graduation plans, he said, “If I could choose, I want to be a sports data analyst.”

While getting to know Leung, I presumed that he “likes sports, specifically basketball and tennis.” It turns out that although he does not really play tennis, Leung plays on an intramural basketball team and has a clear passion for sports as indicated by his efforts to pursue a sports management certificate.

Tiffany is a third year Linguistics major from Hayward. She plans on getting a minor in Education, and while teaching is a possible career path for her, she is especially interested in speech pathology.

I initially labeled Tiffany as a soccer fan or player, but when I asked about it, she replied, “I do like watching soccer. I played soccer in elementary school, and kind of in middle school, but I wasn’t very good.” Instead of soccer, “I played softball in high school,” she said.

Labels Don’t Define Us

As I got to know three strangers, I realized that labels used to describe others and ourselves can be true or false, but these labels do not fully describe the essence of who we are. Like Prince Ea said, “labels are not you and labels are not me, labels are just labels.” Yet, we use these labels in our everyday lives to form conclusions without understanding the bigger picture of what makes up a person.

For example, when I asked Tiffany to list labels she thinks strangers would use to describe her, she said, “Latina. I also feel like some people mistake me for being Middle Eastern sometimes.”

When asked to describe who she is, however, Tiffany described herself as an altruistic person. “My parents divorced, I have two younger siblings, and my mom works a lot. So, I kind of raised them myself when I was in high school, and I feel like that’s a big part of who I identify as,” Tiffany said. “They’re like my everything.”

Although Tiffany identifies as a Latina, this label is not how she chose to define herself. Rather, she stated that, “caring for others is a big part of who I am.”

The Harmful Impact of Labels

Labels, both ones we impose on ourselves and those that are imposed upon us, can be incredibly hurtful and dividing. Leung, for instance, told me that, as an Asian in a predominately white campus, “a lot of the time, [people form conclusions] based off the appearance of being an Asian.”

“I’m actually Christian, so for the past, I want to say six years, I’ve been teaching children’s Sunday school during the summers at my church. So, I would prepare lessons and just connect with the children and help them with their spiritual lives,” Leung said. “I feel like a lot of people sometimes label Asians as shy, and [because of that,] I feel like they won’t see that I would be willing to step up and be in this leadership position.”

Labels can also impact our self-esteem. Taylor said, “I think I have been affected a lot in my life by labels, whether they are labels I think others have put on me, or that I felt like I saw on myself, and I didn’t like. Growing up, I had low self-esteem; I didn’t feel like I was enough for my family and my friends, athletically or socially. It just kind of led me to this point of not feeling loved by people, or by God.”

The toll of labels really hit hard for Taylor when participating in an exercise called “Lifeboat.” He said, “we were on a [hypothetical] sinking boat and there was only one spot left on the life boat. We had thirty seconds to give our case for why we should or shouldn’t have that last spot [on the life boat]. I told the group, ‘I shouldn’t get the spot; I feel like some of you are going to do really great things, and I think you guys deserve that spot.’” According to Taylor, athletic and social labels translated to a lesser self-worth and ultimately a justification for thinking that he was not good enough or deserving of that last spot.  

Possible Solutions to Labels

We all agreed that we should not use labels to form conclusions about people, but the path forward is unclear. For example, Tiffany felt that moving past the labels imposed on us by society is too unrealistic. “Of course I would love to see a world where everyone gets along and there is no racism, but I think it’s far-fetched,” she said.

This raises the question of how we can achieve a world without labels. For some, the answer is upbringing. Tiffany said, “If we start as our generation, trying to educate our children to not think these things, maybe we’ll create a new generation that’s more open and more accepting of all kinds of people.”

For others, the answer is being the change they want to see in the world. Taylor said, “I’m not exactly sure what [achieving a world without labels] looks like in terms of changing the way people are, but I know I can change the way I am, and continue to seek deeper relationships, and not make decisions based off initial impressions.”

Now, as we walk through campus, we can question our initial impressions for those we pass by, get to know our fellow students beyond labels, and strive for a more deeply connected and compassionate community.