A normal zebra
Or why labels can be good.
I had a couple of interesting conversations recently about whether we need labels or not. They came about as I started showing my project Un(masking) at portfolio reviews (I’ll write separately about the benefits - and the dangers - of seeking feedback on your work-in-progress).
A few people I spoke to questioned (albeit gently) some of the ideas I had, saying we don’t need labels, that labels are harmful and surely we are all just human beings at the end of the day.
As a newly “labelled” autistic person that stung a bit. Let me explain.
If we lived in a different world, I’d be inclined to agree that labels aren’t necessary.
But we don’t. We live in the world designed by - and for - allistic (neurotypical) and able-bodied people (and this - among many other things - that make it rather broken).
And in this world, for many people having a label can be the difference between receiving understanding and patience, and being seen as lazy, unreliable or even unintelligent. It can be a difference between being seen as weird and bullied to being commended for doing so well under the circumstances.
But beyond using labels externally to seek accommodations in the world, for those of us with neurodivergent brains, labels like autism or ADHD (and everything else from the wide spectrum) can be incredibly helpful in understanding how we function. In fact, they can be the key to unlocking a sense of belonging and self-acceptance. They can help us connect with others who share similar experiences and struggles. It can help us feel less alone and give us a sense of community.
A label can be a roadmap for how to work with our brains instead of fighting against them. It can provide a sense of validation and relief – a recognition that we are not broken, but simply wired differently.
Naturally, like anything humans invent, labels can also be harmful and dangerous. They can be used to pathologize or stigmatise individuals, to deny them access to resources and support, to stereotype and oppress. So I understand why people I spoke to were hesitant to use one. But of course the problem here isn’t with the label itself, but with the way it’s used.
Because at their best, labels can be a powerful tool for understanding ourselves and others, a way of claiming our own power - and embracing our zebra stripes.
What about you? Do you think labels are helpful or harmful?
P.S. Some of you know I’d been playing with AI technology quite a bit lately - both for text and image generation. It’s SUCH a different creative (yes, creative!) tool to everything I’ve used before and although it’s controversial I actually really enjoy it. The image at the start of this post is generated by Midjourney based on my prompts that included, at various stages, “female”, “autistic”, “zebras” and “label”.