Friday, August 3, 2012


Whenever a conversation on being a geek, jock, hipster, or whatever happens, someone inevitably makes a comment like the following: "Why do we have to care so much about labels? Labels are stupid. Let's just all hold hands and get along."

Well, I'm not opposed to getting along (holding hands might be going too far, labels or not), but I do want to talk about this topic of labeling. And my feelings may not be politically correct or mainstream or cool, but here it goes:

Labels matter.

This fact has been a part of my life since the beginning. I have always been labeled "third of four", i.e. the third of four children, and that label was deeply important to my entire childhood. It explained my standing, where I stood, who I was. I didn't exist in a vacuum where only what I did mattered. I was third with two older siblings who came before me and a younger sister who came after me. Nothing could change that fact. The label just described it.

Perhaps the biggest example of labeling defining me--and everyone around me--was band. In the sixth grade I chose to play the clarinet and that decision set the course of my life before me, though I didn't know it at the time. It would define who my friends were, how I looked at the world, and even how my personality developed. Don't believe me? Well then clearly you've never been in band. Because if there is one thing I've realized, it's that all band stereotypes are true.

I think this is because we choose our instruments at such a formative age, and our instruments give us very defined roles within a piece of music. That entwined with the influence of the upper classmen molds everyone who plays one instrument to be a certain way.

Trumpet players are arrogant, but hard working. Why? Because their instrument takes skill to master, but is one of the loudest, most prominent instruments in the band. Essentially, if they're good, they get all the attention.

Saxophones are arrogant but lazy. Why? Because the saxophone is a "sexy", "cool" instrument to play; one that is showcased in jazz band. But in the words of my beginning band instructor (who was a saxophone player): "Any idiot can learn to play the saxophone." Maybe not well, but it is the easiest instrument to become half way decent on. And since the saxophone isn't a classical instrument per say, a lot of times halfway decent is all you need.

Trombone players are low key and laid back, like their instrument.

Flute players are girly and flirty (which I attribute to the fact that playing the flute makes you extremely light headed).

And clarinets: hardworking but bitter. No matter how much we master our instrument we will never be the showcase instrument that the trumpets, our polar opposites are. Does this description sound familiar? It should, because that's me.

My brother is a saxophone players. Both of my sisters are flute players (though my younger sister is tempered by also being an oboist, which aligns amazingly with the fact that she is for realz OCD).

These "labels" defined me for the eight years I was in band. No clarinet players wakes up and says, "I want to live up to the stereotype and be bitter." But the reality of the instrument makes you that way. And everyone else in the band is going to view you that way.

Labels. They matter.

When I ascribe a label to myself, I'm saying this is how I view myself. I view myself as a Christian, as a geek, as an engineer, as a girl, as straight, as weird, and as nerdy. Instead of saying, "Hey, I have a completely obsessive love of movies, books, comics, and film that means I love to delve into trivia and debate topics relating to them as passionately as some people debate politics", I can say three words. "I'm a geek."

Instead of saying, "I believe Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and you can only be saved by having a personal relationship with him--not through actions or your parents but through grace," I can say, "I'm a Protestant Christian."

Labels are a language of their own, a language we use to describe ourselves.

People also use their own labels to package people into nice little boxes, and this is where trouble happens. People get typecasted. Or you speak up once and suddenly someone in authority views you as a trouble maker. It can be hard to overcome the labels other people put on you, labels you yourself don't believe describe yourself. I've come across this. I dealt with the fact that for most of my college career, the adults in power at the BCM (Baptist Collegiate Ministries) thought I was a trouble maker who personally opposed them on everything, all because I made the mistake of speaking up my sophomore year.

This troubling fact doesn't mean labels aren't important. Labels are important because you need to understand how other people label you. You need to understand how other people are viewing you and how that affects everything they say to you. If I understand the BCM officials view me as a trouble maker, it makes their response to a request I might make logical, instead of completely out of nowhere. If I realize they view me as a trouble maker, I can change how I behave around them and I can spin what I say so they take what I say more seriously. And if I undermine the label long enough, maybe one day they'll view me differently. It didn't happen in the six years I was at Georgia Tech but it's possible.

And when you don't understand how people label you, it can crush you, because you don't understand why people are behaving as they do around you. You don't understand why your Calc teacher thinks you suck at math, even though you've been making all A's. You don't understand why your band director doesn't care about you, even though you've dedicated four years of your life to the band and done everything possible to make your section a better, more cohesive group. And the reality is your Calc teacher labelled you as a "white girl", who will never go anywhere in math. Your band director labeled you as a "mediocre woodwind" so your leadership is unimportant.

It's crushing and angering, and this is why people get mad at labels.

But labels are a reality. And they matter. They show how you view yourself and how others view you. You need to understand them, and you need to learn how to operate in order to use those labels to your maximum advantage.

I am a geek. I am a nerd. I am a clarinet player. I am a pianist. I am a writer. I am a Christian. I am a traditionalist. I am an engineer. I am a rocket scientist. I am me.

No comments:

Post a Comment