Labels all.

Labels describing people by the color of their skin or ethnic heritage could be thought of as a way to identify them or could have a different meaning altogether, a meaning that might not be complimentary in the least.

Back in the old days when I was a reporter and editor, there was a change about when to use the color of skin. We would use the term black, now Black, or white only when it was germane…such as police are looking for a white man, about 6 feet tall, weighing 180 pounds. When you read old publications, race was nearly always mentioned if the person was not white in headlines and in stories.

Label is another of those English words that have multiple meanings or different understanding, depending on who is using it and in what context. My late friend and pastor, the Rev. Russ Rudolf, was a wordsmith of great talent and would have had something to say about this word.

By definition, label is a word, a name or a phrase used to classify or categorize a person or a thing. In history, printed labels, not used until about 1700 were applied to small medical containers. During that period, reading and writing were not common skills but someone must have determined that medicine should be labeled. By the 18th century, all reputable wineries labeled their goods with a hand written label, applied with glue.

In the 1800s, labeling became more universal – another outcome of the Industrial Revolution. Brand names became important and that certainly hasn’t slowed down.

The idea of labeling people is much older than sticking a name on a can of peas or beans. Ethnicity is one of those labels that we seem to carry. So are social roles, sets of expectations we have about behaviors.

We might ascribe characteristics to Republicans or Democrats or the homeless or the mentally ill or to doctors, lawyers, preachers, teachers, or nearly all career paths. It’s pretty easy to learn the shorthand of what to think even if it’s false or specious.

For example, recent polls have reported that Democrats are more likely to seek out a vaccination for the Covid 19 while Republicans are much less likely. The same swing applies to mask wearing. I have no idea why one’s political party has to do with either of those things.

Labels lead to assumptions and stereotypes all too often and even when it’s not a formal, printed label our beliefs can be turned on before our thinking is engaged. Assumptions are something accepted as true before one gathers any proof. And stereotypes are often incorrect assumptions made about all members of a group.

And then, dear readers three, we forgot about kindness and caring instead using those incorrect assumptions to promote hate and cruelty.

Maybe we should save the use of labels for the cans of pumpkin and peas.

Jan Mittelstadt Tippett is a retired daily newspaper editor and publisher. She returned to Owatonna in 2015. She can be reached at jtippett@midco.net

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