Labels. We Americans like to define everything by labels. Sometimes, the labels we put on, or that people put upon us, are very deceiving. Even if the association isn’t quite correct, people make assumptions based on what they see.
The labels on your car, your television and your clothing.
Your education level, your hobbies, your interests.
Your race. Your ethnicity.
Your gender. Your gender preferences. Your relationship or parental status, or lack thereof.
Your political affiliation. Your religion.
Your financial status and your neighborhood.
Your body type or hair style. Your personality.
Your beverage of choice.
Why do we prefer the things we do?
As you can see, there are an infinite number of ways to label someone, each one carrying with it a unique perspective, each one an opportunity for judgment. At different times in history and at different points of the day, your labels open or shut doors. Until recently, people wore only a few labels.
Growing up in the 70s and 80s, labels were simple, but told a lot. Things weren’t “PC” back then.
From early ages, we learn to apply labels to our peers – “Smart kid”, “Nerd”, “Goody-two shoes”, “Bully”.
By junior high and high school, our identities, as others perceived them, were pretty solidified – “Sweet”, “Bimbos”, “Airheads”, “Jocks”, “The IN crowd”, “Drama/band geeks”, “Computer nerds”, etc. I feel like I’m channeling “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “The Breakfast Club” at the moment, but honestly, the simplicity through which other look at and label others doesn’t really mature.
Our parents and adults in general viewed coworkers, neighbors and friends with the same telescope as we did as children on the playground. Terms like “Family Man”, “Stepford wife”, “Irish Catholic Family”, “Off the boat” were so one-dimensional, yet at the time, they needed little explanation. Your label usually comes from a first impression, and that was hard to shake.
Through the 80s, labels began to change a bit as people became more multidimensional. Acronyms such as “WASP” (White Anglo Saxon Protestant), “YUPPIES (Young Urban Professionals), DINKs (Dual Income, No Kids) offered a bit more information, but were still very limiting.
Over the following two decades, “being different” went from something reviled, to something patronized, and finally, to something celebrated. The idealist in me hopes that some day, being “different” won’t matter much at all, at least in terms of rights and liberties.
Nearly a century after women got the right to vote, and decades after the Civil Rights movement, it seems like some people want to start limiting people’s rights again. Some groups out there want to unravel some of the work done in the name of “equal yet equal”, which makes no sense to me. Despite that millions of different, and sometimes conflicting, influences, make up American society, people seem to cling more to their labels than ever.
Look at any place where people spend time together regularly, such as an office or a classroom. Putting aside association by convenience (for example, you all sit near each other), when left on their own time, people segregate themselves from the larger group based on what’s important to the group.
As humans, we naturally gravitate towards the similar, but what people count as important varies. How we label others and how they label us is just as, if not more, influential on our self-image than how we label ourselves.
Assuming the playing field is even, it is in our nature to form bonds with others similar to us, even if people only perceive similarities. We feel safer.
So now for the audience participation part of the day:
Imagine yourself in a room with 99 other people. How would you choose to label yourself?
No matter what your income, race, job, or who or what makes your toes curl, you can choose how you define yourself. To make sure those labels stick, follow them up with action. Weave them into your basic fiber as a human being. Define yourself, and others will have no choice but to follow.