The Power of Labels

Article by: Tashi McQueen

My opinion is based on my experience with these phrases in the context of the United States I cannot speak for what is experienced around the world with the terms I highlight in this article.

 “Language is and always will be an essential element in the struggle for understanding among peoples. Changes in the words and phrases we use to describe each other reflect whatever progress we make on the path toward a world where everyone feels respected and included.”

Kee Malesky
The Journey From ‘Colored’ To ‘Minorities’ To ‘People Of Color’ NPR


I would have to disagree with her use of ‘feels’, ‘included’ where they stand and replace them with ‘are’, ‘safe’, but Malesky makes a great point.

As she so appropriately states in her article, the way in which humans tend to utilize language plays a large part in society. There is always a meaning to derive from the choice of a word or phrase over another. Of which can emotionally and mentally effect an entire body of people. Those words could be used as labels such as ‘Overweight’ to ‘Addict’. John Haltiwanger says it best, “Humans have an innate desire to place labels on everything. Labels give people a sense of order and a way of distinguishing things. Yet, people aren’t things; they are human beings first and foremost. Using labels to describe people ignores deeper reflections of their personhood. Especially when these words are applied to the description of a body of people.”

Because words can be such a powerful tool, where they are embedded in society, the impact of words can bring imminent social division. Just as ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘colored’, ‘handicapped’ have and can produce. Simply saying “this person is white” or “this person is black” strips away the unique attributes of each individual.


My particular disdain with using “of color” as a label for an entire community roots from its use in segregation and the fact that it does not promote a diverse and equal society. I grew up in environments where African Americans are the majority. Not until my arrival at Goucher, an institution where there are 59% Caucasians to 14.2% African-Americans, did I feel like a ‘minority’.

I did not face any discrimination nor was I made to pay attention to my skin tone prior to Goucher. I’ve had about 3 instances of discrimination in the Towson area in the year and a half I have been here. The very first occurrence with the “of Color” label was upon acceptance to Goucher when I’d received the email inviting me to the then named “Multicultural Overnight Recruitment Experience” to allow “People of Color to experience Goucher.”

I was taken aback. My Mother and I began to question this institution and whether I was safe or not. Being fearful of a racist environment, having never experienced one ourselves. We didn’t know if they just wanted more ‘people of color’, or if they were genuinely wanting to provide a space for the less represented. We had never used or heard ‘of Color’ to describe ourselves.

Knowing more about Goucher now, I can see what they were aiming to do but it does not provoke a sense of unity and support. It makes me think of separation. As a person that was looking for an ethnically and culturally diverse school, I was not looking for the solidarity they were looking to provide. This miscommunication could be due to the lack of understanding and representation in the Office of Communications, but that’s a story for another day. Point blank, I just cannot align myself with something that promotes isolation and retains colorism.

“A person’s race, sexuality, socioeconomic status or geographic origins does not define all that he or she is […] When it comes down to it, people have a right to be called whatever they want. However, as a society, we should consider the fact that labels often warp our perceptions of people. In essence, they promote both blatant and unconscious prejudice.”

John Haltiwanger

We Are All Human: 10 Labels We Need To Stop Using To Describe People, EliteDaily

‘People of Color’ and ‘Colored People’ prompt the same amount of disdain to me, but many of the African American community only find being referred to as colored upsetting. It seems like a huge contradiction. The only difference is the rearranging of the phrase, simple language rules. It is now claimed to be used for solidarity amongst those who have seen oppression from Caucasians over the years. Though there is a connection through past & current discriminations, the experiences each ethnicity has faced are vastly different. As Janani has put into perspective, “Even if Black and Asian kids had a common experience of being racialized, we didn’t have a common racialized experience”.

Maybe if society can override these limited color identifying labels, racist ideals will have less space to remain in our society.

“As long as the vocabularies of our struggle derive from the homogenizing actions of White supremacy, we will be that much farther from racial liberation.”

– Janani


Tashi McQueen is an African-American Female that attends Goucher College as an Undergraduate Student.


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