Who are you? What are you? What do you do?
If you stop to think about those three questions, chances are that they’d elicit very different answers. Which answer is the most empowering to you? Which best reflects how you see yourself? Which best reflects what those who love you see?
Recently, I’ve stumbled upon various bits of writing about labels. In Excellent Sheep: the miseducation of the American elite, William Deresiewicz observed that high-achieving young people are so focused on textbook versions of success that they want to ‘be’ something (a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer), rather than ‘do’ something (save lives, pursue justice, build bridges). It got me thinking about my friends, many of whom have job titles that I don’t really understand – but how their work is just as important to society, and just as much about ‘doing’, even if their label is not something that we initially recognize and equate with professional success. It also reminded me of how much my social interactions have changed now that I no longer automatically introduce myself as ‘a teacher’. When I taught full time, I had friends who always asked “how’s school?” – because that was how I had defined myself to them, and how I defined myself to myself. What happens when we stop defining ourselves by what we do, but by who we are?
Another non-fiction book, Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American daughters on obedience and rebellion, edited by Piyali Bhattacharya. Similar themes emerged about how we perceive success as being (a member of a profession), rather than doing . Labels were used: good/bad, brown/white, light/dark, boy/girl. And in many cases, the labels limited, festered, embittered. The women who recognized these labels and moved beyond them were inspired, inspiring, seeking fulfilment.
My PhD work has prompted a bit of reading about labelling theory. It’s often linked with alienation, lowering expectations and other negative outcomes: interestingly, it seems that self-labelling can be just as limiting as labels that are ascribed by others. What happens if you describe yourself as single, married, divorced, a widow/er, a parent, a child? There are structures to each, but it’s not always easy to recognize whether the structure is a support or a barrier. What’s the difference between saying “I have a disability” and “I am disabled”; “I have been through a divorce” and “I am divorced”; “I play the trumpet” or “I am a trumpeter”? For some people, at some points in time, the label is empowering – but it can also be a cage.
I had a chat about this stuff with my friend Elizabeth, who I perceive as funny, caring, knowledgeable and enquiring (and whose most obvious label is PhD student). She observed that in self-labelling it’s easy to let the past and future encroach on the present. We talked about how most people currently in your life probably don’t care much about your past, and yet we often let our previous labels affect our perception of how people see us in the present.
So, lots of things above for lots of us to ponder. But also a particular message for anyone receiving A Level results this week: “What are you?” and “Who are you?” are absolutely NOT the same questions as “What grades did you get?”. How would someone who knows you, but has not been directly involved in your A Level studies and exams, describe you? Take time to think about this, and to ask people who will think about their answers. Hold on to those attributes. They are so much more important than your paper achievements.