Recently, after a productive study date, in a casual conversation for our tired minds, my friend asked, “Are you a feminist?” The question caught me off-guard and I considered the question for an extra split second before responding. “Yes, I think…?” I explained how I was wary to use that label because feminists, like other activists and advocates, seem to include a connotation of hot-headed and emotionally-driven idealism.
As we discussed how I did feel a deep-seated indignation towards the injustices and unfair treatment of women and the LGBTQ+ community, my friend concluded (and I paraphrase), “You’re a feminist, but it’s sad that you can’t just say it, even though it should be the norm.” We laughed at how absurd it would have been to ask someone if they were a sexist or racist instead.
Inadvertently, we describe ourselves with labels all the time, especially when meeting new people. “Tell me about yourself” is a prompt that comes up in almost every job interview, in one form or another. I convince my potential employer that I’m a self-directed learner and a responsible team player; my friends know that I’m introverted, fiercely independent, and highly emotional. During my student exchange programme (SEP) in South Korea, I have frequently been asked where I’m from. “저는 싱가포르에 왔어요 (I come from Singapore)”, I say, when someone realises I’m a foreigner – usually from my halting Korean. To peers I meet who are curious about what languages I speak, I explain I’m Singaporean Chinese and understand Mandarin and Cantonese too. Sit me down for a meal and I’ll give a whole crash course on Singapore’s language policy history and the concept of how Mandarin is my so-called Mother Tongue.
I hope that the numerous labels I must use to describe myself are continually questioned rather than taken at face value. What does being Chinese mean to me? Or being Singaporean? What is a Mother Tongue? What is an introvert? What are my standards of being responsible? What norms do I compare myself to when I say I’m emotional?
I believe that what constitutes our identity as individuals is complex and multifaceted. Therefore, we cannot and should not reduce ourselves to short succinct labels. Juggling the multiplicity of my identity labels has made me ponder their significance, and how we seek to simplify, consolidate, and package ourselves as understandable and palatable human beings. Yet, while they prove helpful in giving self-introductions and elevator pitches, there is a danger in seeing them as all-encompassing end-points in themselves. It becomes easy to generalise all individuals who identify with the same label – blanketing them with the same traits and qualities – diminishing individuals to stereotypical figures, which is what gives rise to caricatures and prejudiced discrimination to begin with.
That being said, it’s impossible (and unideal anyway) to do away with labels altogether, on the other extreme. Having the vocabulary to express ourselves allows us to find our tribe of like-minded people, who have an established understanding of the topic, allowing the basis for engaging in two-way conversations that do not require re-definitions all the time. This is the refreshing satisfaction that I get from discussing sociolinguistic issues with fellow linguistics students, where I might not be familiar with the specifics of a case study, but with whom I share enough basic knowledge with – meaning that it is not required for us to define labels every two seconds.
Self-referent identity labels – like that of being a student of linguistics – enable us to capture the essence of an aspect of our identity, and point us towards membership of a shared group. To be able to say I am a (one, 1) Singaporean, implies that there are others, and that we all inhabit a shared circle of common traits or cultural experiences. At the same time, knowing the labels we use for ourselves also helps others perceive us more accurately – my friends’ knowledge that I’m an introvert who loves peace and quiet probably makes them less likely to ask me to a crowded and noisy event, aiding them in their planning and suggestions on what we could do.
The importance, therefore, lies in balancing the convenience of labels and capitalising on them simultaneously, without falling into the trap of overgeneralising. Labels, to me, are a starting point to forming a deeper understanding of the world and others. It is through conversations and learning about others’ lived experiences that enhances our understanding of how there might be different definitions to the same label, when held by different individuals. For example, the label “dancer” could evoke notions of someone extremely skilled at their niche craft, who has been dancing since a young age, and who has likely mastered that genre of dance to a large degree. However, to someone else, being a “dancer” could entail a set of attitudes such as an openness towards improving their bodily awareness and a desire to explore physical movements, without as much emphasis on skill level or dedication to a single dance genre compared to personal discovery and development. Yet, both lines of thought regarding a “dancer” follow a common understanding that this person appreciates and practises the physical art that involves movement of the body in a rhythmic, musical manner. While acknowledging our shared commonalities, we should not hold onto labels like dichotomous black-or-white categories. You needn’t be either a (professional/amateur) “dancer” or a “non-dancer”, you could be somewhere in between, casually exploring dance forms without a deep understanding or impeccable grasp of dance. To me, the beauty of humanity lies in our unique subjectivities, where no one is identical to another.
So let me tell you more about myself: I am a huge nerd for analysing things – factual, fictional, formal and informal texts, or optimising resources for maximum efficiency, yet I can’t bring myself to manage my finances and investments; I am a lover of cafe study dates and chill-yet-productive vibes; I am a hater of exercise – but will tolerate physical exertion for scenic views; I have a very limited social battery – but I’m invigorated by selective meaningful social connections. One-word labels alone can’t define me, but are a good resource for me to springboard for me to explore what it means to be me, beyond identity labels.