Labels are Tags, Not Containers.

Our voyage through the nooks and crannies of our individualities has us surrounded by a sea of options to call ourselves. These things are commonly known as labels, names by which we categorize and organize who we are in such a way that gives greater insight to our identities. However, the disdain for labels seems to be all the rage.

“Don’t Put Me In A Box.” “I Can’t Be Labeled.” Two of the most sung refrains in the hymnal 21st Century Self-Discovery.

Their lyrics tell the story of labels, not as marked pieces of paper tacked on to people, but pieces of metal used to confine. Shackles. Barbed wire. Prison bars attached to brick and mortar stacked so high around us that escape is only fantasy. “Labels are restrictive,” they say.

And it is that observation that drives me to love the fact that labels exist.

I like that labels seem rigid because that means I can possibly push their boundaries. I am faced with an opportunity to evaluate and evaluate again, seeing if the label that is set before me is a contender for my demolition work, is worthy for my shift in perspective, or nothing at all. But in this scrutiny, I am not trapped. There are no endless towers of walls enclosing me. I am not at the mercy of labels. Labels are at the mercy of me. 

Looking at me, you see that I am darkly pigmented with other features that racialize me as black. Some can go further and gather that I am African without me saying a word. But when I speak, my accent hints at the story of my Western background and my African identity is nuanced in the presence of my Canadian and American ones. However, one identifier does not overtake the other; they coexist. And in their coexisting, one can ask, What does it mean to be African? What does it mean to be Nigerian? What does it mean to be Canadian? What does it mean to be American or Californian? What does it mean to be black, physically and culture-wise?

We can also look at labels that exist outside of ourselves, for example, in genres of writing. I gained a bit of perspective reading Esme Wang’s brilliant and eye-opening post called Blogging Is A Genre, & Don’t You Forget It. This piece is a gem-filled entry in her Journal in which she distinguishes between writing and blogging by noting their differences in structure, content, and the gratification they provide. She also mentions that some people will push blogging boundaries (including herself) and she eggs on those who do so. Because of this, her post answers and encourages further exploration of the question, What makes a blog different from other types of writing? And since things, like a blog, act as a reflection of ourselves, we can also ask, What makes a blogger a blogger? How is that different from a writer?

Writer. American. Educated. Christian. These words carry their usual definitions, painting an instant picture of what they are in our minds upon seeing them. Often, our perception of labels will be based on stereotypes and those who do not fit in them may be frustrated with these stereotypes, and, as a result, may denounce the label altogether and find one in which they fit better. To them, labels are containers in which they hope to fit perfectly — definitions, stereotypes, and all. But if humanity is an ocean, many labels will fail at containing its depth.

There is something empowering about taking on appropriate labels that have stereotypes that don’t fit you but owning the label anyway. It is an educated rebellion of sorts, one in which you march through the world at your cadence with the label attached to you, occasionally encountering the pensive ones who look at you, then the label, then you again with a quick, quizzical gleam in their eyes that turns into genuine intrigue. They are now exposed to one more way of looking at a certain label because of you. Their world has been rocked and that is your doing.

As you move along, you will find others who wear labels that are different from yours. But it is to your amazement that you find so many similarities in your personalities and beliefs. As these bonds are created, conversations of identity may result. You may find yourself questioning the labels you contain or confirming your reasons for taking those certain labels, leaving you with the joy of further insight into the human condition in either case and in other various ways.

It is in the expansion of the ways in which I can look at a certain thing that brings me so much glee. And it is in this that I realize the following to be true: labels are not static. Once created, they evolve alongside our growth in knowledge and understanding of humanity and the things around us. Labels can be restrictive only if we allow them to be. We hold them. They don’t hold us. 

* * *

What labels have you considered in the past and/or present? Are they a part of you now? Why or why not?


>> For more on labels in regards to race and nationality, click here.
>> To see my hesitancy with taking on the label “feminist” while being pro-woman, click here.
>> If you’re interested in seeing my confusion with the label “modest,” click here.

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