It's Time To Meet the UMass Students Going Beyond Labels

It's Time To Meet the UMass Students Going Beyond Labels

What's it like to live a life free of labels?
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Stereotypes exist. Women are inherently weaker than men. Asians are good at maths and sciences. Gays are flamboyant and promiscuous. There was a time when society actively acknowledged those stereotypes, creating exclusion laws and protecting people’s rights because of who they were.

But it has progressed, in a way -- people are people, regardless of their race, gender, orientation or any categorical label. Most people no longer consciously single others out derogatorily because of who they are.

But what about subconsciously? Might you avoid starting up a conversation with someone because of the groups they associate with? Would you automatically judge someone because their appearance is similar to a group you don’t particularly like?

You may, and the judgments you make may hurt someone without you meaning to. They’re not quite through a fault of your own -- they’re known as unconscious stereotypes, ones that you might not actively use to classify people, but occur anyways.

There are plenty of campaigns on campus out to fight against active stereotypes, but there aren’t any dedicated to rooting out and reflecting on unconscious ones. This is where the campaign (un)labeled comes in.

Conceived by a group of students in an advertising practicum, the campaign is dedicated to helping people realize that subconscious stereotypes still exist and that it’s not too late to recognize and reflect on them. Originally, the challenge stemmed from the Anti-Defamation-League, which put out a call to college campuses to create a campaign that was able to reach as many students as possible.

“We [looked] at hate groups that were around us and [looked at] people we could try to reach by doing this campaign,” says Pascale Froehlich, a member of the campaign. “We thought about UMass, and how UMass generally considers itself pretty liberal.” Liberalism and non-hatefulness, however, don’t quite seem to go hand-in-hand.

“People say ‘I’m not hateful’ and they don’t realize they are hateful,” she explains. “We’re not saying you’re hateful for having unconscious stereotypes, we’re saying you might not know that you have them, and realizing you have them and making a change is more productive than just saying ‘I’m not hateful’.”

It’s tempting to ask what sets the (un)labeled campaign apart from all of the other groups on campus: after all, they all strive towards somewhat of a similar goal.

“There are a lot of great support groups on campus,” Pascale acknowledges. “We don’t want to copy another group because it’s not going to be effective when they already have such a presence on campus. We stand out because there isn’t a group that focuses on unconscious stereotypes, and because [we are] a group that can bring other groups together.”

Another thing that sets them apart is their intention to target as many people on campus as they can. “I don’t think there’s a group yet that necessarily targets everyone on campus,” she says. “We wanted to target as many people on campus as we could, and we thought that targeting unconscious stereotypes was the best way to do that.”

As a social media campaign, (un)labeled puts a lot of emphasis on the amount of effort that it takes to participate. “People don’t necessarily have to do much,” Pascale says. “They just have to reflect and realize that even though they consider themselves as liberal doesn’t mean [they] don’t have these implicit stereotypes,” It’s a campaign that could flourish in an environment where supporting causes can mean that you have to go all out for them or risk being labelled as someone not dedicated enough.

“UMass, at least in the past, has been known to be a very activist campus.” she allows. “It can be stressful if you just want to be a person. You know how there’s a ton of active people on campus, but there are people who don’t want to be totally active?

Maybe they’ll agree with the campaign, but they don’t feel comfortable going out and rallying -- we want to target people who are actively trying to make change but also the people who aren’t really comfortable going out to change society but at least they can make a change to themselves.”

The campaign’s message (to live an unlabelled life) is one that resonates even with the members. “It’s part of my own self-development,” she reflects. “We all do it -- we all have our own unconscious stereotypes...It’s something that you have to reflect on, and I think that it’s important for future generations that we can grow up treating people as individuals. Doesn’t sound like a hard thing to do, but it is hard. Humans love to categorize people.”

It seems especially true when looking at the campus’ annual climate report, which played a part in fueling the campaign. “I already knew that we’re not very diverse as a campus, but I was surprised that the efforts the campus has made to diversify aren’t really working out,” Pascale says. “I know the campus makes a lot of effort to diversify, but year to year, the numbers [of people that feel the campus has diversified] don’t change.”

“I think this might have to do with that there aren’t enough support groups for people on a campus that is predominantly white. I wish that UMass maybe changed their tactics or found other ways to be more inclusive.”

She’s fearful that the lack of diversity at the school may affect the diversity of its attendees. “When people visit the school and go on tours, maybe they don’t feel comfortable because we’re not that diverse, and that’s why they choose not to come here. I’m scared that that might be the case. Obviously [because] Massachusetts is predominantly white, and [because] it’s a state school...UMass makes so many efforts to diversify, I’m confused as to why there isn’t more diversity.”

Diversity is more important now than ever, especially in a campaign that aims to encourage it through asking people to think about their unconscious stereotypes. “In today’s society, there’s a lot of campaigns pushing back on the progress we’ve made,” Pascale explains. “There have been a lot of groups that have popped up and said ‘it’s okay to be racist again” and that people like ‘femi-nazis’ are taking [their issues] too far, that they should just chill out.”

“It’s not about chilling out, it’s about doing the things that we’ve been saying and normalizing them. I believe one of the main ways to do that is to attack unconscious stereotypes.”

Recently, the campaign hosted an event geared towards attacking unconscious stereotypes and revealing them. Inspired by a Heineken ad, the group felt that they could simulate something similar to the ad and produce the same results. “Can you meet someone on campus that you wouldn’t necessarily have a conversation with?” Pascale asks. “Can they look past their unconscious stereotypes and have a conversation?”

The event, titled “Beyond the Label”, almost sounds like the premise of a speed-dating event at first: two people sitting in a cubicle are given questions and time to answer them in the hopes that they will facilitate a conversation. “It’s not speed dating, but more of a conversation,” she laughs. “They’re going to have questions to ask each other. If they go through the questions and feel like they don’t have anything else to say each other, that’s fine, but we’re hoping they get inspired to have a conversation with each other.”

“I don’t think that anyone’s going to change their perspective, but I want them to realize that there are tons of people on campus that -- even though they’re different -- doesn’t mean that you can’t have a conversation with them.”

Unfortunately, for those that missed it, the event seems to have been a one-time-only opportunity, as many members of the campaign are graduating. However, footage from the event (and other students’ stories) can be found on (un)labeled’s website for all to peruse and learn from, hopefully, to work towards eliminating unconscious biases and to create a more diverse campus.

Cover Image Credit: Serena Wong

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