Comments, In Focus

Labelling identities

By ‘stereotyping’, we refer to labelling a person or culture with particular characteristics, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’. In education, it is said that the student becomes ‘what the label denotes’.


 Nigel Pocock


The label therefore becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A student labelled an ‘idiot’ becomes one.

There are three areas in which research has focussed regarding stereotyping or labelling – gender, age, and skin-colour racism. It should not surprise us that in each case that labelling simply as ‘Black’, ‘female’ or ‘old’ reduces performance. Sometimes the smallest of actions is all that is required to reduce performance, such as ticking a box indicating that one is ‘black’. With older people, labelling them as ‘senile’ and ‘forgetful’ can even lead to a loss of the will to live.

Conversely, positive labelling, as ‘wise’, ‘accomplished’ or ‘astute’ led to improved health in terms of reduced blood pressure and stress. Positive labelling is multiplicative: It spills over into other areas of life.

An improved self-esteem leads to more activity, thus to better physical health, and thus to better mental health; these in turn leads to a more pro-social life-style, itself conducive of improved achievement through networking, and improved mental and physical health.

More ambitious goals and education may all result from this multiplicative effect.

For women, advertising has been shown to impact them to the extent that they will abandon cherished ambitions to become scientists or mathematicians, even if they were good at these subjects at school or college, a kind of unconscious ‘bimboisation’.

Behind these tendencies to fail lies negative stereotyping or labelling. It has been suggested that some people decide to avoid this assault on their fragile self-esteem by retreating into the negative stereotype.

This, of course, fulfils the label put on them. Black people lack intelligence, goes the stereotype derived from two hundred years of labelling, so black people avoid tests of intelligence, and retreat into ‘macho’.

Women see themselves as emotional and illogical, and thereby debarred from careers in which logical thinking is critical.

Indeed, brain scans show that when statements that challenge a stereotype are used, such as “A black female pilot was in command of the aircraft”, that the brain sees these as nonsense statements, incomprehensible, evoking surprise and shock: “This surely cannot be true!!”

At a deeper level, it may be that a culture that regards people as only having economic value lies behind much stereotyping.

A 3,000 year old Hebrew text says that one should not covet a neighbour’s property, in which is included his house, his donkey, and his wife.

When Christ came, he forbade divorce, and in thus doing, he abolished the notion that women were property, to be disposed of at will, to the shock and horror of the males around him, including his own disciples.

This captures the issue at bottom: greed. Humans are greedy for power and status, and when it mattered that males were physically more powerful than women, they lorded it over them, much as white people over black African slaves. Land, property, inheritance, capital: this lies behind legitimations for negative stereotyping, and the dominations that they serve.

The wise person is him or her who is secure enough not to be threatened. They love themselves. For this, a stable, structured, loving family is key, but that is another story.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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