Name Calling

When I was six, my mother called me “Little Professor” even though she had never met anyone who went to college, yet alone taught at one. She called me this simply because I wore glasses and liked to read.

At LIFT Communities, people who come looking for assistance are called “members” as a sign of being equal to everyone who works there.

And at the public charter school, KIPP NYC, incoming students are called by the year of their expected graduation…from college!

What we call people matters. They can set expectations. Sometimes high, but too often low.

When we say someone is a poor person or a vulnerable child, we are defining them by a current deficiency and not by their future potential.

When we refer to someone as a felon, we are labeling them according to the worst act they committed. Something none of us, I suspect, would want.

As children we often heard some variation of, “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will never hurt us.” While the spirit was intended to inspire resilience, research confirms that some names stick with us and weigh us down more than you can imagine.

Names and labels can set unfair expectations, deepen stigmas, and perpetuate stereotypes — often leading to both unfair perceptions and unproductive policies.

In your work and in your life, think about the names you use to call or label people. Are you using them in a way to show our common humanity or creating a sense of “the other”? Do the names suggest the best of a person or the worst? Do they help someone “move up” or show how they’re being “held down”? To see more from Moving Up, visit

Leave a Reply

Sign up here to receive Moving Up Mondays

Receive our weekly email, delivering inspiration and perspective every Monday morning.