Return of “The Label Game”

I was invited this week to guest lecture for University 101, which is a course all of the INTO international students at Drew are required to take.  University 101 is designed to introduce students to life at Drew, to life at an American university.  I was asked by the instructor of 101 to do something about race and stereotypes.  So, I pulled out an oldie but a goodie: the label game.  “The Label Game” is something I adapted from a number of “diversity” trainings I have been to over the years.  The exercise worked well, particularly for a large group (about 30).  In this particular case, we talked about the similarities and differences between stereotypes in the US and in other parts of the world.  The students were active and had a lot of fun with the activity, but they were reticent about talking during the debrief.  Ultimately, after some coaxing and leading questions, the conversation went well.

Here’s the write-up I developed for the game:

We meet many different people, encounter many different cultures, and see, glance, glimpse many different faces, bodies, and styles of dress. Life at a large university and life in general is organized in part by how we sort, evaluate, and categorize all of the information we receive through our senses. When we meet someone for the first time or when we pass someone walking down a street, we sometimes consciously though usually unconsciously label them, identify them in some way, make sense of them by what we can observe and assume. The following exercise challenges those observations, those assumptions, those stereotypes by making them hyper-visible and exaggerated.

Getting Started

  1. The activity is best suited for a group of 25-30 people. Have students stand in a circle, all facing inward, in the center of the room.


  1. Print or write stereotypical words or short-phrases on a sheet of self-adhesive labels.


  1. Explain the following ground rules: A) Each person will randomly receive a label placed gently on their back; B) The labels are in no way an indication of them or a comment on them; C) Students are to remain in the circle until the activity begins and are not to reveal the labels to one another; D) The classroom is a safe space and the exercise should be engaged in a cooperative spirit.


  1. Walk around the outside of the circle placing a single label on the backs of each student. Though labels should be randomly assigned, some labels are clearly gendered and may be matched to a male or female student or not.


The Exercise


  1. Once all students have a label, explain the rules of the game: A) Students are to pretend they are at a social gathering and will walk around the room talking to one another; B) Students are encouraged to meet everyone in the room at least once; C) When meeting a new person, they are to look at that person’s label and react to them and their label in a stereotypical manner without revealing the label (much like the word game Taboo); D) Reactions and clues should be contextual, conversational, situational and comments should avoid using synonyms of the label; E) Encourage students to draw connections between people with ostensibly linked labels.


  1. Begin the “cocktail party.” Students should walk around speaking to one another for about ten minutes. The facilitator of the game can mingle and provide additional feedback, reaction, and encourage wallflowers to get into the game.


  1. Once the exercise is completed, have the students sit down in the seats but not to remove their label. Again, no one is to reveal another student’s label.


The Hard Questions


  1. Debrief the students. Talk about the nature of labels. What is a label? Why do we use labels?


  1. Have students raise their hands if they have no idea what their label is. Ask them how people interacted with them. Have them guess their label. Then reveal the label. Have them put the label on the front of their shirt.


  1. Have students raise their hands who know what their label is. Ask them how people interacted with them and how they knew what their label was. Reveal the label and have the student place it on the front of their shirt.


  1. Finally, have everyone reveal their labels placing them on the front of their shirt. Ask for responses to the exercise. Are all labels bad or negative? What is the power of labels? Is it possible to ignore labels? Deconstruct labels? Not use labels? Discuss obvious labels and invisible labels. Talk about labels we willingly adopt? Who gives us our labels?




As a follow-up to the label game, propose to students that they wear their labels for the remainder of the day on the front of their shirt. Students with (perceived) pejorative labels will generally express discomfort or refusal. Discuss why they are unwilling to wear a label particularly if the label is not true to them. Students who do wear their labels can be given the opportunity to write a short response paper to their experience or to share their experience in the next class.


Ultimately, one of the major lessons of the label game is that these particular labels can be taken off whereas there are labels that can never be removed or shed or escaped.

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