Culture Shock: Empower yourself through self-definition

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I grew up in a mainly white school fifteen minutes from the Connecticut shoreline, in sleepy towns whose grocery stores only recently started selling “ethnic food” (meaning only plantains). I was mainly defined by the people around me, and the labels I used were their best guess at identifying me-not my own way of identifying myself. However, I just don’t fit those labels. The boxes are too cramped; they’re too isolating in their definitions.  

 That realization took me so much time to understand. If a label’s main effect on your life is isolating, you need to throw it out. Look for boxes that were made by and for people like you, and if it seems like they don’t exist yet please look harder. Better yet, create that box yourself. In this process of self labeling you will find that the old labels that were given to you are completely wrong. You will find that those labels come from an obscenely white, American perspective.  

When a constricting label is put on you by others, it’s an act meant to disempower you. All societally-imposed labels come with the implicit assumption that you lack the agency or cognition to understand yourself. Many terms, like lazy, have deeply racist, ableist, and misogynistic histories. What do you imagine when you hear the word lazy? Was it a homeless person? Were they white? or black? or brown? Whatever they were in your mind is a point of bias. This is an aspect of labels themselves: they reinforce an idealized/demonized version of whatever they’re trying to define.  

Given this, I assume some people will think “well we should just stop labeling people, because we’re all the same, right?” That thought is very cowardly, and I’m almost certain that if this is your thought process, you’re a combination of privileged labels yourself and these conversations make you queasy. Nonetheless, the title of this article is “Empower Yourself Through Self-Definition,” so let’s do that.  

I would describe myself as Andean, bisexual, and non-binary. These define me, they work for me, and they’re still not complete but I’m so excited to share and write them. That’s what labels should feel like, they should make you happy to say them, they should relax that weight that has always been on top of you. Sometimes you don’t know the weight is there until you play around with definitions and look for your community.  

Let’s be clear though, this didn’t happen in a vacuum. My definitions broadcast my beliefs and I definitely wouldn’t feel safe exploring them if I was trapped in a friend group that wasn’t quite so friendly to people like me. This was the case for long stretches of my life, but I am fortunate to have met some of the most accepting and wonderful people I have ever known, both through a housing switch and via on campus activism. These are people who intuitively understand what Audre Lorde meant by “divide and conquer must become define and empower.” 

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