I’m a Person, Not a Problem: How the Labels We Use Can Backfire

Title Cover, Teen sitting with hands covering face

Labels can be an explosive topic in the nonprofit world. Labels that governments, organizations, and ordinary people use to describe people and places.

By people, I don’t mean secretaries, bankers, or astronauts. And I don’t mean labels like “stylish,” “talented”, or “funny.” I mean labels that hurt when people are talked about as if their challenging circumstances have become their identity.

For Example

You’ve probably heard people labeled in one of these ways: low-income, at-risk, underprivileged, abused, uneducated, and disenfranchised.

On the surface, some of these labels look like simple descriptive words. But who wants “abused” to define them? Who considers “low-come” to be an inescapable part of their identity? And who wants to walk around knowing people see them as “underprivileged” or “at-risk”?

Nobody does. Especially when they don’t see themselves that way.

The Pushback

Every industry has its own “internal language,” and some of these labels have become a part of that language. That makes the labels both acceptable and invisible within those industries. 

By invisible, I mean that those who use the labels don’t necessarily consider the people behind them anymore nor the biases that have become attached to the labels.

But from time to time, you’ll see pushback as advocates for “labeled” people and places stand up and call for change. They call on those who use the labels to reconsider them. 

One example is the 2014 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, called, Who Are You Calling Underprivileged? The author gives us a first-hand account of what it feels like to have positive self-esteem and then realize that others see you through a label. One you didn’t choose and don’t want.

Another example is the youth-led media campaign, We Are Not At Risk, that “calls attention to, and changes the harmful rhetoric around youth and lifts up the voices of young leaders”

So Why Use Labels?

Here’s my own super quick-and-dirty take on it:

First of all, as humans, we tend to like shortcuts. We often use labels as shortcuts to help us understand the world around us more quickly. Those labels categorize and help simplify what we see and experience.

Then, there’s the government. Lawmakers are concerned about people and neighborhoods that need help to thrive. So they allot funds to help. Then, to ensure that the funds support the intended people and neighborhoods, those people and places get categorized and labeled.

Now, a scholar would have a much longer and more sophisticated explanation about this kind of labeling. But this isn’t an academic essay, and I think you get my point.

So what’s the problem? What’s wrong with those labels?

The Trouble With Labels

As helpful as they’re intended to be, labels can have a negative effect when they “paint” people as less-than, unable, incapable, threatening, or unwanted. And two things tend to happen.

First, the label gradually takes the place of the full, complex, multi-faceted character of the labeled people and places. And that leads to stereotyping. Stereotypes tend to carry negative judgments that take the place of digging deeper and getting to know people and places.

Second, a surprising side-effect that sometimes accompanies negative labeling is the fact that some people start to live out those labels.

This is partly because outsiders can’t separate the labeled people from the labels assigned to them. So those onlookers treat them differently than they otherwise would.

Labels Create Expectations

Here’s a jarring example of that: Back in college, I took an educational psychology class that required students to read about academic studies on an array of ed psych topics. I found a study about the effects of teacher expectations on students.

After testing some young elementary school students, two groups with average scores were randomly divided into two classes. One teacher was told the students were above-average performers, and the other was told the students were below-average performers. At the end of the study, the first class had above-average grades, while the unfortunate second group had below-average grades.

The abstract described how differently the teachers performed in the classroom. One expressed high expectations for the students and told them they were high performers. The second teacher expected much less of the students and didn’t push them to achieve more.

The abstract concluded that the teachers’ expectations for their students shaped their behavior in the classroom. The teachers’ behavior then contributed to the students’ performance—positively for one group and negatively for the other.

Wow! I read that abstract more than 40 years ago, and I still feel bad for that second class! Can you see how labeling the students changed teachers expectations and behavior? Can you see how one label resulted in altered student performance?

Now imagine what would happen if both groups of students believed the labels and continued to act as if they were true. For the rest of their academic lives!

I hope you can see why we must be careful about labels in the nonprofit sector. We might just sabotage the very work we’ve set out to do.

Caution for Nonprofit Founders

This gets tricky for charitable nonprofits that serve people and neighborhoods. In order to qualify for nonprofit and tax-exempt status, your organization must be created for charitable, educational, religious, civic, and certain other purposes.

The truth is that serving some of the people and places that have been “labeled” will make your organization eligible for nonprofit status. Why? Because nobody hands out nonprofit status for you to help people and neighborhoods that don’t need help! And those that need help have probably been labeled.

Grantmakers, nonprofit partners, and government contract administrators probably use some of those labels. If so, they’ll ask you to address those issues, and you can’t just ignore them.

So What’s The Answer?

We have to make sure our conversations, grant proposals, and organizational descriptions make the distinction between the identity of the people we serve and their circumstances.

So for example, you’re not helping “low-income people.” Instead, you’re serving people whose earnings and assets fall below the poverty level. See the difference? We’re helping people who find themselves in a particular set of circumstances. But those circumstances don’t define them as people.

Peeling Off The Labels

One way to become more sensitive to the ways we inadvertently use insensitive labels is to have an honest dialogue with the people you serve. Obviously, not all of them will have the same viewpoints, but you’ll probably learn a lot.

As compassionate ChangeMakers, we’re eager to help people transform their lives, and our enthusiasm is an asset. Sometimes, though, we need to pump the brakes so that we avoid doing things to—or in some cases for—people instead of with them. When we buy into traditional labels, we may subconsciously believe we know what’s best for other people.

We’re not saviors descending from above to give them what we “know” they should have. We’re guides, companions, counselors, and friends. We hurt when they hurt and want to support their efforts to improve their circumstances.

A great way to learn what people want and need is to stop presuming and actually listen to them.

What’s Next?

Now it’s time for some reflection. Whether you’re thinking about launching a nonprofit, or whether it’s in progress or well established, think about the ways you think and talk about the people and places you serve. Do you need to make a change? If so, where will you start?

What Makes Me Crazy

As you’re thinking about your answers, let me throw out one more thing:

I have a pet peeve about the way we use language in this culture. When we don’t like what a word stands for, we vilify the word. And once we vilify it, we make up cutesy or wordy alternatives to replace the offending word.

Here’s my favorite (or is that least favorite?) example: We practically worship youth in this culture; so we adore the word young. But since we dislike the idea of being old, we dislike the word old. We consider it an insult when it’s just another adjective. (So now my auntie is “98 years young” instead of 98 years old, even though she’s well past caring about such vanities.)

In the nonprofit sector, let’s not get crazy. Let’s not work so hard to avoid words that have negative or unpleasant associations that we start making up wordy phrases and inaccurate words to replace them. (Euphemisms come to mind here.)

Let’s just be thoughtful about the effect our words might have on the people and places we serve.

Nonprofits tackle negative issues. Ugly issues. Unthinkable issues. And we shouldn’t try to cover up that fact. But we can do a better job of attacking problems without injuring the people affected by them. We can, and we will!