Labels, Categories, and Identity

Bonnie Reimer

Last week, I was watching the Country Music Awards (CMA) on which Beyonce performed with the Dixie Chicks, who are traditionally know as country western singers.  There was a lot of backlash after her performance, mostly related to her right to be on the CMA considering she is known as a mainstream pop rather than country artist.  It seemed to me that Beyonce could have been trying to construct a new identity, but others would not accept it.  This reminded me of Eva, the Polish woman whom I discussed in my presentation on October 20. Likewise, Eva was trying to construct an identity in which she would be accepted into the social network at work (Norton, 2013). Eva also felt her accent and limited English hindered her struggle and identified her as an uneducated immigrant. Because of Norton’s longitudinal study on Eva, there was a lot of insight into how she felt though no research has been done on Beyonce’s feelings, at least none that I know of.  The point is that people have different identities and may be constructing new ones, but that does not necessarily mean that other people will recognize nor support these identities.

Regardless of poststructuralist notions, I think many people have a more structuralist view of identities considering them more fixed and consistent. This seems evident in the different labels and categories related to English language learners, such as immigrants, newcomers, ESL speakers or non-native speakers. I feel that such labels may sometimes stigmatize those identified as such and make them feel marginalized. In fact, our own education system not only labels such students but also often separates them from those students who speak the language of power, which may reinforce feelings of inadequacy. Students may also feel the system is holding them back from becoming part of the mainstream or constructing new identities. Think of IELTS and TOEFL, which many institutions force potential students to take. If they do not achieve a certain score, then they are not accepted into the mainstream and labeled as needing ESL courses or English support. Also, remember Dawn Allen’s research (2006) in the Accueil program, where she found that participants felt that learning French was an obstacle to their social, academic and linguistic integration. However, segregation can still occur in a mixed group. As a teacher and student of content subjects, I noticed that native English speakers often group themselves together, unconsciously or consciously marginalizing those who they feel have limited English abilities. In the same way as Eva’s coworkers did not see past the immigrant with limited English (Norton, 2013), the native English speakers do not see what the other students have to offer.

On the other hand, perhaps some students may be comfortable with these labels and identify with them. Maybe, they feel a sense of comfort or power being with people they can identify with rather than being part of the mainstream. As for separate language support classes, some students may see these more as beneficial and empowering until they feel they are ready to integrate into different networks. What do you think about labels and categories?


Allen, D. (2006). Who’s in and who’s out? Language and the integration of new immigrant youth in Quebec. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 10(2-3), 251–263.

Norton, B. (2013). Identity and Language Learning: Extending the Conversation(2nd ed.). North York, Ontario: Multilingual Matters.

One thought on “Labels, Categories, and Identity”

  1. Thanks, Bonny. For me, one of the key concepts for theorizing identity is agency. In what way do the labels and categories we use give or deny individuals agency? I don’t think we will ever get away from sweeping identity categories, as they are useful (e.g., for Census data; demographics; etc.). However, the poststructural questioning of the status quo is important for allowing cracks in how we understand the workings of power in fixed identity categories, for making space for individualities, and for recognizing the ongoing negotiations that individuals are performing all the time. Questioning the fixity of identity labels is important because those labels carry real and material consequences to what is and is not possible for people who are fit into particular categories. For example, who, in Quebec, gets to choose the language of education for their children? Some who fall into the Anglophone category (but not all) and Francophones. Not Allophones. Are these useful labels? Definitely, for particular purposes. Are they accurate labels? I think individuals within any of those categories could offer some counterstories that blur the lines. And this brings me back to agency. Maybe the goal isn’t so much to choose one or the other with respect to perspectives on identity, but rather to recognize that the picture is not as simple as the dominant status quo.


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