“And… oh, yeah, we also have an Asian roommate,” I hear from the other room. Maybe just for a second I blink: What Asian roommate? But it’s happened often enough for me to catch on almost at once—Oh, you mean me, your mixed race Asian American, Native American, white American roommate. Flashback to several years before: “Please indicate your race,” my PSAT asks me gently before subjecting me to several more hours of interrogation. I have the smallest of existential crises as I’m told to “Check the box which describes you.” Just one. As if my British name and my Asian heritage could not fit into the same box, into the same body. As if I could choose one fragment out of the patchwork of identities that coalesce in me, when each one defines me in its own way.
Let me be blunt: the way labels are treated pisses me off. I hate societal institutions that tell me I can only fit into one box, like that PSAT demographics questionnaire or the U.S. census—you know, the one that didn’t let people choose multiple ethnicities until 2000 (http://www.census.gov/prod/2001pubs/c2kbr01-6.pdf). It pisses me off even more when people I know personally deny or disparage parts of my identity, labels I have explicitly presented to them time and time again. I’ve been asked questions like “You only like Asian girls, right?” Yes, because I must maintain the purity of my Asian blood. Oh, wait, one generation too late. I’ve all too often encountered this dismissive tendency to reduce multiple identities into one: “No, you’re not mixed, you’re basically white with Asian looks.”
It is downright exasperating that labels are something that people feel compelled to measure with near scientific precision. Whether it’s the contrived practice of dividing heritage into fractions like a person’s background is composed of discrete units, or the implied mandate that a majority threshold is needed to authentically claim an identity—the ever popular “Yeah, you’re X, but you’re not real X.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying labels are or should be divorced from reality. A person claiming an identity whose struggles and victories they have never experienced is appropriation. And I understand that conversations about what labels mean can be constructive to communities that identify with them. These labels do mean something concrete. No one could argue away the importance of racial identity in describing the struggles and pride of a community.
But why do we insist on narrowly restricted narratives? Why do the multiplicity and flexibility of labels scare us? I think that a lot of the problem lies in how we view labels as prescriptive rather than descriptive. To an extent, I get it: an endless list of dynamic labels make things more confusing and uncertain. The vagaries of amorphous identities that extend beyond a simple binary or a multiple choice question can feel overwhelming, especially to the uninitiated. And there’s even a fear that these less established identities threaten the identities of others, that these intermediate labels somehow make other labels less distinct and more confusing to sift out one from the other. It’s easy to understand the different modes of sexuality when there’s just two of them, but add in six or seven more and from the outside things get blurry. This internal complexity can translate into an external dismissal of distinct, closely held identities. Expansive sets of labels can be baffling to outsiders and frustrating to insiders. But life is baffling and frustrating. Life is exciting and scary in its confusion, and my life is not something for another person to simplify at their own convenience.
So here’s my message: we need to stop viewing labels as monolithic—as set, inflexible in space and time, something indivisible. Labels are, like any words, imperfect tools for capturing reality, and they evolve over time. I don’t use labels because they convey everything that I am, even if I were able to know myself in totality, but because they offer a rough sketch of different facets of my identity. When I tell you I’m “bi,” you don’t get the complete picture that I’m actually mostly into people with really great hair who give me food and the occasional section Chem 17 TF, much less my background, my politics, or any other part of my identity. Instead, you just get this overall sense that I like at least two genders. But the beauty of descriptive rather than prescriptive labels is that it leaves the rest of my identity open. Each clumsy word I use to describe myself is just a framework for how I see myself, how I want to see myself, and how I want others to see me.
That’s not to say that labels don’t have the power to define: by subscribing to certain labels, we often engage in experiences that strengthen those identities and help define who we are. By considering myself “feminist,” I strengthen my resolve to actively involve myself with other feminists, and the process of engaging in thoughts and actions with other like-minded individuals shapes my identity as a feminist and as a holistic human being. Plus, this label helps me mold my personal relationships: it draws me closer to people with similar labels and guides the interactions I share with other people. I’m probably not going to discuss intersectionality on a regular basis with my chem TF, but if I ever get the chance, I might take a moment to mention that I consider myself feminist (and maybe even throw in bi, mixed race, disillusioned cynic, single and interested) to help explain why I’m so invested in these issues and to shape the conversation between us. I use labels not because they encapsulate every vague detail of my personality but because they help make some sense of the vast, often conflicting personalities which encompass me. There is descriptive and definitive power in choosing labels, but there’s no reason these labels should inherently come with limits.
Along the same vein, we need to stop restricting labels to time. Consider the “it’s just a phase” trope, that phrase you can’t even imagine being said without a tone of condescending dismissal. Why is it so insidious that being bi or being a humanities major or being a Marxist libertarian might be a stage in someone’s life? Why do people see temporary or changing identities as less legitimate? A temporary label is still an important qualifier of how someone lived and perceived themselves in a specific moment of their life, and that history remains even as the labels change. Even when my labels remain constant, the way they describe and define me has changed with the years. Even though I was born Asian American, the way I engage that part of me has changed over time: from obsessively watching Korean dramas as a teen to developing an interest in Asian American Pacific-Islander activism as a college student. And these labels don’t just change with time, but with the spaces and relationships I find myself in. With my siblings, I am the awkward middle child. With my roommates last year, I was the couch-surfing nomad. With my roommates this year, I am the non-theater kid. With you, dear Reader, I am an anonymous cis-male feminist telling you to fuck restrictive, external labeling.
Because no assortment of these boxes defines you in all spaces at all times. So dare to leave monolithic identity behind. Check all the boxes. Make your own boxes. Change them around as you see fit. Tailor them to the situation, the crowd you find yourself in, the moment you live in. Don’t let other people limit you to a standard set of labels. Because these words describe you and define you in intricate ways, ones that can’t be inscribed into dictionaries or neatly contained in convention. Because you are a complex human being, a vast and dynamic narrative all your own, and whatever words you choose to tell your story are yours. Choose them wisely, choose them honestly, choose them continually, choose them deliberately. And most of all, choose them for yourself.