I don’t mind labels. I actually like them. A label is just a sticker. It can be removed. It can be moved around. It can stay on indefinitely.
Labels and categories are only measures of identification. They make things easier to sort through, to know what might occur.
A label is not a scarlet letter branded into your flesh, an Auschwitz tattoo pricked into your arm. People get riled up, proclaiming, “I hate labels!” or “Don’t put me in a category.” Bro, you’re a human being, there’s no singular definition. You’re not pigeonholed or limited to just one label for the rest of your life, sister.
Only time i dislike labels is when they’re inaccurate. Same goes for if someone talks about me: as long as it’s not a lie, fine, go ahead. Truth and authenticity. Truth and authenticity.
If i ask you what you do, please do not start off by saying, “it doesn’t define me.” I KNOW that. I don’t need a qualifier. I don’t want to hear or see you being defensive by a simple question. I don’t want the first words to be a sign of an insecurity.
I didn’t ask you, “Who are you?” Or something as loaded (or philosophical). I just want to know what you do for a living, what your occupation is, your career, your vocation. If i were a person to believe the all-encompassing definition of an individual was their job title or position, i’d be a sad, pathetic, singular-minded and -faceted human being.
The question is an introduction, like a name, to know some portion of the greater definition of you. It’s an easy start to further branches of a conversation. By my asking what you do, i’m interested in a sentence from your story. Use the question as an opportunity to craft the telling of your narrative. Make it your own bard’s tale.
You tell me you’re a teacher, i’ll have an idea that you’re into education, you like to influence folks’ lives directly. I’ll probably then like to know what grade(s) you teach to see what type of disposition you have; can you deal with little children?—do you have patience? Why a teacher and not a professor? Are you a world traveler, picking up English-teaching gigs to keep your wanderlust afloat?
Everything is deeper than the tip, the rabbit hole goes farther than the shadowed entrance you see. The what do you do inquiry is a springboard to more knowledge for me.
It is troublesome when i hear people reply with it doesn’t define me because it speaks that they assume their jobs are who they are. Maybe they didn’t learn this as a youngster: an occupation doesn’t define a man or a woman. Maybe they didn’t have blue collar or no-collar ancestors, those who cleaned toilets, built houses, washed clothes, toiled in factories from sun to sun. Whatever gets the food on the table.
Football Hall of Fame shoe-in, Kurt Warner, was a supermarket bag clerk while trying to make it into the NFL; do you think he believed asking, “Paper? Or plastic?” was who he was? No. He had to make a living, biding his time until he had the right opportunity to do what he loved for a living.
These anecdotes from people’s lives add to their character. Can be an inspiration or a red flag.
Using myself as an example, i’m curious to see how some of my labels look when written and how they interact, how they co-exist and seem to be at odds with each other, but when viewed as a whole, make up my personal artwork:
I’m a Brooklynite. I’m a Sigma. I’m a dread. I’m a momma’s boy. I’m a computer geek. I’m an atheist. I’m a heathen. I’m a Black non-believer. I’m an athlete. I’m a writer. I’m a social butterfly. I’m a homebody. I’m a Cancer. I’m a Gemini-cusp. I’m an HS diploma-holder. I’m an autodidact. I’m a bibliophile. I’m a tattoo fiend. I’m a lover.
Now, take any of those entries and let them stand alone: would they accurately give a full story or a definition of me? Of anyone? No. But, they would be bases for further stories to unfold, would be ready to be unpacked further.
Each label, though static in itself, aren’t the only ones that can exist in a given space or on a given person. Put one or six atop another, rip away an old one, one that no longer fits. Embrace the labels knowing they are forever able to be changed or replaced or given company.
Keep an open eye and mind to everything. Live organically rather than statically. It’s what i do, how i am, how i live. Mercurial and quixotic. I speak from experience of doing a lot and nothing.