This past weekend was Recruitment for all the sororities at JMU. I am in a sorority (I won’t say which one) and something that happened left me quite peeved. We wear name tags, and on those name tags, in addition to our names, we were required to fill in the phrase “I am…”
This seemingly harmless request really rubbed me the wrong way. I hated that whichever word I chose, to write on the tag, would carry a host of underlying connotations. I hated that I was being forced to sum myself up in ONE word. So I didn’t write anything. Left the stupid tag blank. And all weekend, my friends were quite literally coming at me with Sharpies—trying to brand me.
All the while, in my head, I was questioning why I had to make such a big deal about it. No one else seemed as repulsed by the idea as me. I kept attributing my reaction to my deeply-set aversion to labeling. I have always had a huge problem with labels…or so I thought.
After this experience, and many others like it, I have to admit that it is virtually impossible to talk about any human trait without using specific words or labels to describe the differences that exist between people. It’s the way labeling occurs that matters. Essentialism. That is what I have a problem with, not labeling. Essentialism is the belief that all members in a category must share some particular characteristic, or set of characteristics, in order to be considered a legitimate member of that group. People resort to essentialist thinking when they want to attribute certain qualities to everyone subsumed within a particular category i.e. all women are caring and empathetic. The attribution of those characteristics, to the category in a move that seems to presume a homogenized and unified group, is what really irks the shit out of me.
I am a supporter in people’s right to self-identify and to describe their own lived experiences. I understand that people can use identity labels in a non-essentialist way—to that, I say FUCK YEAH! LABEL AWAY. I call myself a woman and feminist, not because I hold essentialist beliefs about those categories, but because I feel like those words best describe me. I identify as a musician because I play guitar and sing. I do not believe that there is some magical, bippity-boppity fairy dust quality that all musicians, women, or all feminists have in common. The only thing we have in common is that we loosely share some non-essentialist quality (i.e. we play musical instruments, we move through the world as females, we identify with the feminist movement.)
My point is: We have been socialized to shove everyone (and everything) into homogenized categories, ridden with strict labels, in order to make ourselves comfortable. It gives people free reign to make assumptions about individuals who fall under homogenized umbrella terms that govern our culture. We need to cut that shit out. Seriously.