I am fundamentally against the usage of labels. All of them. Every single type. From monikers and titles, to the nutrition facts on a sleeve of Oreos, I am against them.
This is a bold statement. I know that, and I am also well aware that it is an emotionally charged and heavily biased opinion. As a bisexual, mixed race person, society dictates that I exist only within the “in-between.” I have never really been able to find a space where I feel that I truly belong, as there is always too much of this or too little of that for me to claim myself a member of most groups. In short, there is no comfortable intersection in which my many identities can manifest as a collective entity. Instead, they (me) are left to flounder as a living smorgasbord–an array of fragments I’ve spent my entire life trying to piece together. To be honest, I’m still not even halfway there.
Labels act as signifiers. For someone who doesn’t easily fit into the usual categories, this is an obstacle and means of exclusion. I bring discomfort to the world. Instead of seeing my experiences as relevant to a shared identity, labels call attention only to my differences. The sense of community becomes non-existent and I become the outsider.
Labels act as barriers, and my experience highlights that. Labelling my sexuality and my convoluted ancestry only serves to highlight the ways in which I don’t quite fit in. I’m not implying that identity is dependent solely upon the name it is given (you and I both know that we’re worth more than that), nor am I trying to discredit the empowerment that self identifying can bring about. What I’m arguing instead is that labels are dangerous in that not only are they are exclusionist by nature, but also because their consequences are often ignored.
It’s at this point that the unalterable aspects of my existence become significantly less relevant. Since hitting puberty, I’ve changed a lot (thank God). As we enter our twenties, it becomes increasingly apparent that many of the things we used to love were quite literally, just a phase. Honestly, I’m really grateful for that because in hindsight, unironically watching Shrek was not a sustainable life model. What I’m not too stoked about however, is the intrinsic way in which the labels that were slapped on me at 14 became alarmingly central to my idea of self.
College is supposed to be a time of trying new things and broadening your horizons, sprinkled with a dash of self discovery. For the most part, I find this to be true and admirably wholesome. The caveat to this is that none of those things are easy. At Penn, we’re known for our competitive culture and what has been deemed our work hard, play hard attitudes. I find both of these things to be utterly terrifying, and have since my very first day here. To be honest, I find most of the people I meet here to be utterly terrifying. While the broader campus culture is the product of… a lot, I’ve found that the reason why I find so many kids here to be perplexing really just boils down to issues involving labels and identity.
Gaining acceptance to an Ivy League university is an impressive feat. To do so, you need to be an applicant that truly stands out to the board of admissions. At Penn, it feels like everyone you meet was valedictorian, captain of the soccer team, a nationally ranked debater, and had personalized graduation pics with every person in their class. For many of us, these accomplishments were more than just pieces of our Common App; they were our whole lives. We labelled ourselves based on our activities and achievements. I was a highly decorated athlete. My roommate had been the smartest person in the room since kindergarten. Honestly? You probably were too.
The truth is that everyone who comes here is incredibly talented in their own regard, even if their skills are similar to those around them. The problem is that no one is really prepared for the culture shock and subsequent identity crisis that arises when suddenly, you’re no longer “the smart kid” or “the creative one.” Instead, you’re left alone questioning who you are in the wake of having what feels like your strongest identifier stripped away from you. This is an inevitable byproduct of relying on labels to define who we are. In high school you were a swimmer, and now you’re just someone who goes to the gym once every three weeks. Instead of just feeling guilty over your poor exercise habits, you feel as though you are consciously killing a piece of yourself. Had you instead identified as Jack, someone who swims, the problem would have been less disruptive. The labels that we’re given, and those that we give ourselves, become destructive to our sense of self worth as we start to realize they may no longer be true.
Labels are security blankets, and having them ripped off of us is an existential crisis waiting to happen. One of the scariest traits I find in Penn students is their unwavering ability to consistently do The Most™. At any given time, it appears that everyone is doing everything in their power to be a part of it all. Academics, Greek life, recruiting, clubs, etc. While the truth of this may not hold, it highlights what is clearly an attempt to find pieces of their previously shattered identities. It would be insensitive to say that we are overcompensating, but there is clearly something at play here. Penn is a place where “Incoming Analyst at J.P. Morgan” is more than just a LinkedIn tagline, it’s a personal statement.
Yet as dangerous as labels are, it appears that we are always drawn to them. This is inevitable. Although I wish we weren’t so dependent on labels to personify ourselves, I don’t quite know what else we would do. There are no existing or foreseeable alternatives. However, we can change the way in which we use them. Though the phrase is often overused, show don’t tell. There’s no rule that says we have to confine our identities to a few meaningless words. Instead, expand upon them. Tell your story, and share your experience with someone rather than exist in a hollow world of declaratives.