the trouble with labels
A few weeks ago, I declared myself a Southerner. And ever since then, I’ve been thinking about identity labels. Why do I call myself the things I do?
I spent a week in Kentucky recently, and while Kentucky is not always considered part of the South geographically, culturally it has always felt very southern to me. So I was expecting to feel like I belonged, finally. Instead, I felt as much like an alien interloper as I ever have.
Initially I thought perhaps labels are additive (not subtractive), so rather than identifying solely as a Southerner, I could say, “I’m a Southerner in addition to [other stuff]”. Except in short order that seemed slightly ridiculous: “I’m a Southerner, a Great Lakes-er, a Midwesterner, and now a Mid-Atlantean”? Why bother using geographic labels at all?
And then I thought, why use labels at all? What do I gain from using labels?
I’ve since realized that a large part of my attraction to geographic labels in this case seems to be entangled with that tendency I have to chase after people who don’t like me. But here, I am chasing after a community or a culture. A community or culture that I have no natural affinity for, but some part of me thinks, “if these people will accept me, maybe I deserve to exist, maybe my life is worthwhile.” You can see how pernicious this idea is, because if I can’t get them to accept me, I’ve defined my own life as worthless or even nonexistent.
If I have no labels, do I exist?
If no community claims me, can my life matter?
I’m trying to explore these questions, but I’m meeting with a lot of internal resistance. Even the idea of just living my life, and not paying attention to how others would define it, or even how I would define it, seems so revolutionary I can hardly wrap my brain around it.
It does seem clear, though, that there are many more parts of former identities that I need to prune away, before I can locate and perhaps co-create my inner truths.
Who am I?