When Labels are Limiting

Sometimes being able to name something is liberating. Coming out to family and friends as gay or transgender can be terrifying, but it is often the moment when someone finally is able to relax. Knowing that one’s struggles in school are related to a diagnosis such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder doesn’t make those struggles disappear, but it can lessen anxiety over things outside of a student’s control. Labels can be empowering in some situations.

However, they can also be limiting. Identity is one of the most complex constructs that we have created. The intersection of a variety of identities within one human being makes the experience of individual identities impossible to pin down. We may share an identity, but that does not mean that our experience within that identity has looked or felt similar.

Julie Murphy is one of my favorite authors when it comes to unmasking the complexities of identity. Her books Dumplin’ and Puddin’ tackle western norms of beauty, superbly. In her book, Ramona Blue, we meet a young woman in her senior year of high school who embraces the labels she has been given and the ones she has assigned herself. Ramona is devoted to her sister Hattie and their father, with whom she shares a small trailer in Eulogy, Mississippi, ever since they lost their home during Hurricane Katrina. She works multiple jobs to save money to support Hattie, who is pregnant. She also knows that she loves girls and has been out to her family and community for several years. She is proud to call herself a sister, a lesbian, and a small town girl.

However, when an old friend from childhood returns to Eulogy, she realizes that these labels may not completely define who she is. Her relationship with Freddie is complicated, as love so often is. Her identity as a sister has always come before her ambitions, but does that hierarchy need to exist? Who gets to decide what it means to be Ramona Blue? As Ramona says,

Maybe it’s not all the little labels that make us who we are. Maybe it’s about how all those labels interact with the world around us. It’s not that I’m gay. It’s that I’m gay in Eulogy, Mississippi. It’s not that I’m tall. It’s that I’m too tall for the trailer I live in. It’s not that I’m poor. It’s that I’m too poor to do and have everything I want. Life is a series of conflicts, and maybe the only resolution is accepting that not all problems are meant to be solved. (Murphy 363)

Ramona is relatable to anyone who has ever struggled with their own identity or with the changes to identity that occur over time. However, teenagers who are making decisions about the next phase in their lives will find Ramona particularly engaging. Her voice seems timeless, as we have always and will always be searching for who we are and what that means in our time and place.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Identity 1: I have a positive view of myself, including an awareness of and comfort with my membership in multiple groups in society.

Identity 3: I know that all my group identities and the intersection of those identities create unique aspects of who I am and that this is true for other people too.

Identity 4: I express pride and confidence in my identity without perceiving or treating anyone else as inferior.

Identity 5: I recognize traits of the dominant culture, my home culture and other cultures, and I am conscious of how I express my identity as I move between those spaces.

Common Core Standards:

RL.1- Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

RL.2- Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

RL.3- Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

RL.5- Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

RL.6- Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).

Published by socialjusticeinchildrenslit

My name is Leah Cole and I was a teacher in Iowa for nine years. My passions for education, social justice, and children's literature led me to create this blog. Students are faced with issues of justice and fairness from the time they are very young. The Social Justice Standards developed by Teaching Tolerance help teachers to support the development of students who recognize and embrace their own identities while respecting and valuing those who are different. In this blog, I will attempt to identify and review books that support the social justice standards.

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