If you ask, I think most people would say that they don’t want to be labeled. We all wish and deserve to be seen in the fullness of our character and personality, our strengths appreciated and our weaknesses forgiven.
And yet, we are our own worst labelers.
We choose clothing that reflects our taste and possibly our socioeconomic class, and workplaces often require that choices conform with a dress code. We drive certain makes of cars, and refuse to drive others (I knew someone who paid more at the rental car agency because he could not be seen in the only car left at the level he had reserved – a P.T. Cruiser.)
I’ve never been a fan of labels. I was a teenager when designer names began appearing in bold, prominent letters right on the face of the clothing. Though it was considered a status symbol, I thought of it more as wearing a sandwich board to advertise corporate interests, because that’s just the kind of teenager I was. I even snipped the little Levi’s tag on the back pocket of my jeans. I really did not want to have any words on me, anywhere – no brands, no schools, no funny sayings.
Even now I do not wear T-shirts. The only time recently that I wished I did was at a UNC basketball game, where I would have rather have blended into the fun of the Carolina Blue tidal wave.
I am well aware that my avoidance of labels is a kind of label in itself. “I am one who eschews labels!” But yet I continue to pass judgment, conscious or unconscious, positive or negative, on everyone I see in the course of a day.
We think we are making free choices based on our preferences, but we are also actively trying to meet certain expectations of us, and to project some sense of meaning through our material possessions – whether we’re trying to identify as serious professionals, quirky and hip thrift store patrons, eccentric ex-pats, or something else entirely.
Everyone has to play along for this to work, or otherwise the signals we are sending out are not being received in the way we want. If you’re going for sophisticated and someone tells you that you look cute, it’s not a compliment.
A lot of labeling, of ourselves and others, is just trying to narrow things down. We want to find out where we fit in, by seeking out those who feel familiar to us, and by eliminating those who don’t. But what if we paid more attention to the unfamiliar, in an active effort to expand the labeling that we do, to round out the profiles of others instead of grabbing at an easy stereotype?
I love a label challenge. The other day I was leaving the completely fabulous (and free) A.D. Clark Pool in Chapel Hill when I spotted a young African-American woman wearing a T-shirt that said “I (Heart) PN,” with “Polska” in smaller letters. Thanks to my heritage (obvious in my name if you’re in the know) I knew that the T-shirt was indicating that she loved Poland.
I had to ask. It had been a gift from a friend, she said, and she herself was not sure if she loved Poland or not. Still, seeing the shirt made my day.
And recently I met a beautiful grad student with Caribbean coloring, wearing a long sundress, her extensively braided hair gathered under a beautiful scarf, and I asked her where she was from. She was from Philadelphia. Another day I met a woman in full exotic sari, but when she spoke she sounded just like me – she too was from northwest Indiana.
Labels don’t have to be good or bad. But until we can recognize that we are making assumptions when we apply one, we might never stop to try to learn the truth.
Amy Trojanowski dreams of one day owning a pet goat. You can reach her at email@example.com.